Memo: Vatican nuncio quashed sexual misconduct inquiry of Archbishop Nienstedt

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, speaks Nov. 16 during the opening of the 2015 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS/Bob Roller)
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, speaks Nov. 16 during the opening of the 2015 fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS/Bob Roller)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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The Vatican envoy to the United States quashed an investigation into alleged homosexual activity on the part of Archbishop John Nienstedt and ordered a piece of evidence destroyed, according to an 11-page memo unsealed Wednesday afternoon.

In the memo, Fr. Dan Griffith, then-Delegate for Safe Environment for the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, stated that in April 2014 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., ordered two auxiliary bishops to have a St. Paul law firm quickly wrap its investigation and later that month instructed them to destroy a letter they had sent Vigano pushing back on his request.

The memo, dated July 7, 2014, was a part of numerous legal documents disclosed Wednesday following the conclusion of a criminal investigation into the archdiocese by Ramsey County prosecutors. The six criminal charges brought last summer were dropped after the archdiocese agreed to add an admission of wrongdoing to the civil settlement it reached with the county in December. No charges were brought against individuals, with Ramsey County Prosecutor John Choi saying there was insufficient evidence to do so against any one person.

The documents, though, give perhaps the clearest view to date into the until-now largely concealed investigation of Nienstedt, which explored allegations that he engaged in sexual misconduct with other adult males, including seminarians. In previous months, local media had obtained and reported on several of the allegations.

Griffith, who served as Delegate for Safe Environment from August 2013 through July 2014, was the liaison between the archdiocese and the law firm, Greene Espel, conducting the investigation. Together, his dual roles gave him a front-row seat to how the investigation emerged, unfolded and was ultimately abruptly wrapped.

According to the memo, at a midpoint in the investigation in April 2014 Vigano, during a meeting with Auxiliary Bishops Lee Piché and Andrew Cozzens, ordered it quickly shut down and its scope tightened and inhibited. At one point, he also allegedly demanded that the two bishops destroy a piece of evidence -- a letter they had sent him earlier that month expressing disagreement with his decision.

Calls for action, refutations of allegations 

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, attorney Jeff Anderson said the documents show the presence of a cover-up and urged Pope Francis to take "definitive action" against the officials involved, including Nienstedt and the auxiliary bishops by putting them in jail and removing them from the clerical state.

"So Pope Francis, if your words mean anything, just do it. You have the power, the evidence is before you. Do it," Anderson said.

Vatican Spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi told NCR Thursday that the Vatican is not commenting, as "we are speaking of a complex situation in which there is not sufficient information."

Vigano, 75, submitted his resignation in January after holding the diplomatic position since 2011; it was accepted in April. He is replaced by Monsignor Christophe Pierre, the former papal ambassador to Mexico. It was Vigano who was discovered to have arranged the meeting between the pope and Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who drew headlines for her brief time in jail after refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Letters of the now-retired ambassador were part of the 2012 "Vatileaks" scandal.

The Twin Cities archdiocese has not yet addressed the details of the report, saying only in a statement that the documents show "no basis" for bringing criminal charges against any leader. At a press conference earlier Wednesday, St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda said he had met with Francis two weeks ago, but that the criminal case against the archdiocese "wasn't one of our topics." Hebda, who spoke before the documents' release, added the pope "certainly knows of the situation in the archdiocese."

More: "Calls to resign plague Twin Cities archbishop accused of sexual misconduct" (July 10, 2014) 

Nienstedt, who resigned as head of the archdiocese in June 2015, said in a statement that "the allegations were and still are absolutely and entirely false." He said he has yet to see a final report of the investigation and reiterated "I am a heterosexual man who has been celibate my entire life. I have never solicited sex, improperly touched anyone and have not used my authority to cover up, or even try to cover up, any allegation of sexual abuse."

Nienstedt also expressed sorrow for abuse survivors, their families and the Twin Cities Catholic community, and specifically apologized for the handling of allegations against former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, whose sexual abuse of three minors in 2010 sparked the criminal charges and civil petition against the archdiocese as well as the larger abuse scandal that has rocked the area for nearly four years.

“As the Archbishop, I should have asked more questions, I should have demanded more answers, and I should have insisted those within the Archdiocesan administration at the time share more information with each other. I am sorry,” he said.

Nienstedt said he felt relief by the release of the information, "that the public now knows the extent of the allegations and can hear my response." He said he viewed the accusations as "a personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with Catholic Church teaching," specifically same-sex marriage -- reiterating a position he has stated in the past. Nienstedt played a leading role in the statewide push in 2012 to define marriage in Minnesota as between one man and one woman, a measure that ultimately lost, with the state months later legalizing same-sex marriage.

The archbishop said his opposition to same-sex marriage and admitting openly homosexual men into the priesthood has been met with "hundreds of threatening, insulting, and sometimes frightening letters, emails, and phone calls, some anonymous." He said the men making the accusations in the documents "are known to me, and to each other," and that they disagree with the church's teaching on homosexuality.

More: "Editorial: Nienstedt should disclose findings of abuse investigation" (Sept. 5, 2014)

The Twin Cities archdiocese has repeatedly declined comment on the status of the Greene Espel investigation.

In a brief statement Wednesday, Griffith said, "The memo speaks for itself. I stand by it." He also expressed confidence in the new archdiocesan leadership regarding safe environments for children and welcomed the opportunity to work with them.

The investigation begins

In his memo, part of exhibit six in the affidavit of Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Thomas Ring, Griffith states that in fall 2013 allegations of misconduct by Nienstedt began emerging through priests and persons who knew him from his time in Detroit, where he was born and ordained a priest. The allegations describe unwanted touching, sexual solicitation, frequenting a gay bar/strip club in Windsor, Ontario, (across the river from Detroit) called the "Happy Tap," and leading an overall "promiscuous gay lifestyle." In addition, there were concerns with the social relationship between Nienstedt and former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, whose sexual abuse of three minors in 2010 sparked the criminal charges and civil petition against the archdiocese as well as the larger abuse scandal that has rocked the area for nearly four years.

Griffith said that earlier in 2013 he confirmed with past Twin Cities Archbishop Harry Flynn that the prelate had conveyed concerns regarding Nienstedt's behavior and had expressed them to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then prefect for the Congregation for Bishops (2005-2010).

In November 2013, several chancery officials met and determined an investigation should begin to review the allegations. By January 2014, Nienstedt agreed to the investigation, authorizing it in a letter and appointing Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché to head it. After considering numerous options, the archdiocese hired Greene Espel in February, telling them "their sole objective was to discover, as best they could, the truth or falsity of these allegations."

The preliminary investigation obtained 10 affidavits (an 11th would arrive later) detailing "misconduct by Archbishop Nienstedt across both time and geography." The sworn statements, deemed by the lawyers as credible and often against self-interest, provided evidence of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, reprisals for rejections of unwanted advances and excessive drinking.

At an April 10, 2014, meeting, the Greene Espel team presented evidence to Griffith, Piché, Cozzens, Fr. Charles Lachowitzer and Brian Wenger, the archdiocese's outside counsel. Griffith reports in the memo that all believed the evidence "compelling" and were unanimous in the belief Nienstedt should resign.

Two days later, Piché and Cozzens flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with apostolic nuncio Vigano. Joining them was Nienstedt, whom the two auxiliaries invited. "The hope was to reach a pastoral resolution for the good of the Archdiocese, given the compelling evidence gathered thus far," Griffith wrote.

But no resolution would come.

‘The turning point’

The meeting and a subsequent phone call between Piché and Vigano proved "the turning point," Griffith wrote. The priest said he understood that Nienstedt had a conversation with Vigano following the auxiliary bishops, during which "he may have convinced the Nuncio that the allegations against him were all false" and part of a conspiracy -- Nienstedt has said since that the rumors stem from people upset with his decision as a Detroit auxiliary bishop to end a Dignity Mass that was popular with area gay Catholics.

According to Griffith, he said he understood Vigano believed the allegations as not serious and ordered them "to have the lawyers quickly interview Archbishop Nienstedt and wrap up the investigation," despite Greene Espel having "at least 24 more leads to pursue" -- one alleging Nienstedt had sexual relations with a Swiss Guardsman in Rome.

The auxiliary bishops expressed in a letter their disagreement with the decision, stating it "would rightly be seen as a cover-up." They suggested another bishop outside the archdiocese be appointed to oversee the investigation's completion. Griffith said he supported both decisions.

At a post-Easter 2014 meeting, Piché told one of the Greene Espel lawyers they were "to narrow the focus of their investigation to the question of whether a crime or a grave delict had been committed by Archbishop Nienstedt and that their interview of the Archbishop should likewise focus on these questions," according to Griffith, who was present at the meeting. Any further pursuit of leads along this new focus would require Vigano's permission, Piché said, which he said would likely be denied. Additional inquiry into two potential sexual harassment cases -- one presenting "potential liability for the Archdiocese as well as the Archbishop" -- unearthed in the already-gathered evidence would also be allowed, though not as a main focus.

Both Griffith and the Greene Espel lawyer, David Wallace-Jackson, told Piché the narrowing of the investigation was not keeping with the original mandate, with Griffith saying it indicated "a different and more permissive standard" applying to the archbishop than to priests alleged with misconduct.

At the same meeting, Griffith describes Piché grabbing "a correspondence" from Wallace-Jackson, saying he could not read it or have a copy. In a follow-up, Piché told Griffith that the lawyers could not have a copy. Griffith then recalled Piché stating that Vigano had asked him and Cozzens to take back their April letter "and destroy it."

Griffith appeared shocked at the directive from nuncio:

"I would like to pause for a moment and visit the gravity of what you conveyed to Mr. Wallace-Jackson and me in your office at the chancery. The destruction of evidence is a crime under federal law and state law and the fact that this request was made of you by a papal representative to the United States is most distressing."

Griffith said he hoped Piché and Cozzens "did not comply with this shocking request/directive," advising them to report the episode to an appropriate Vatican authority.

From an inquiry to a ‘cover-up’

On July 3, 2014, Greene Espel withdrew from the investigation, a day after receiving a letter from Piché that apparently limited their final report "to present only factual findings." In the memo, Griffith stood behind the work of the lawyers and advised that the archdiocese reengage them to complete the investigation, which had interviewed Nienstedt twice and was near its final report or if not, make public their withdrawal immediately; a report from Commonweal in July 1, 2014, made public the investigation.

"The decisions made subsequent to your April visit to the Apostolic Nuncio to comply with his request to narrow the scope of the investigation, to quickly bring the matter to a close despite at least 24 leads, and now to further inhibit the work of our lawyers in this so called independent investigation have made the Archdiocese complicit in a white-wash and a cover-up. I believe there still exists a principle of Catholic moral theology that one's conscience is not bound by something immoral or unjust. There is still the possibility to allow Greene Espel to complete this investigation consistent with the January 31st letter and in furtherance of both truth and justice," Griffith wrote.

If Greene Espel was not brought back into the investigation, which had cost approximately $400,000 at that point, Griffith advised the archdiocese to send the affidavits and their work to the Congregation for Bishops, and that it "should prepare for the eventuality" that some or all of the affidavits will be made public at some point.

On July 29, 2014, Piché announced Greene Espel had concluded its work and that the firm's work "does not comprise" the entirety of the investigation, which was continuing under the auxiliary bishop's direction. The ambiguity of the report's status continued through Nienstedt's and Piché's resignations in June 2015 and into earlier this year, when Nienstedt abruptly left a Battle Creek, Mich., parish, where he was assisting a friend, when people learned of his presence in the area.

In his memo, Griffith said the investigation placed the archdiocese "on the verge of an unprecedented moment in the history of the Church in the United States," in that at its beginning it demonstrated the insistence of an archbishop being held to the same standard of justice as his priests. Instead, he said, "What has unfolded in the face of compelling evidence amounts to a good old-fashioned cover-up to preserve power and avoid scandal and accountability."

Griffith bemoaned "an ugly clericalism on full display in this present matter," and that the Catholic faithful deserve better and will demand so.

"Truth was my sole goal as well in my role as liaison. The truth will indeed come out and when it does, the Archdiocese will have to answer for it and the decisions made in regard to this investigation," Griffith wrote.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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