Calls to resign plague Twin Cities archbishop accused of sexual misconduct

Archbishop John Nienstedt (Newscom/ZUMA Press/Richard Tsong-Taatarii)
Archbishop John Nienstedt (Newscom/ZUMA Press/Richard Tsong-Taatarii)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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For the second time in seven months, Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt faces allegations of sexual misconduct.

The latest charges reportedly involve no minors or criminal acts, but that hasn't silenced some corners of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese from sounding calls for a leadership change. Despite hearing those refrains, Nienstedt said he has "an obligation to preach and teach the Gospel," and that any decision to resign does not lie with him.

"As a bishop, I made a promise to serve the Church. It is what God has called me to do, like a groom to the Church, for better or for worse. I have kept that promise since my ordination as a priest 41 years ago, and my episcopal ordination 18 years ago and I will continue to keep it," he told NCR in an email.

Since the end of January, a Minnesota law firm hired by the archdiocese has examined numerous accusations that Nienstedt had engaged in improper sexual conduct with priests, seminarians and other men. News of the investigation broke July 1, when Commonweal magazine reported that lawyers with Minneapolis firm Greene Espel had interviewed former canonical chancellor Jennifer Haselberger about "sexual impropriety" by Nienstedt dating back to his time as a priest in his native Detroit archdiocese.

The archdiocese confirmed the report later that day in two press releases, one from Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché, who said the archdiocese received misbehavior claims "several months ago," and that Nienstedt appointed him to investigate. Piché said that the investigation by Greene Espel, which he hired, is ongoing. He noted the claims "did not involve anything criminal or with minors."

"These allegations are absolutely and entirely false," Nienstedt said in his own statement, adding they "involve events alleged to have occurred at least a decade ago, before I began serving in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis."

Nienstedt confirmed that he has informed Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the U.S. apostolic nuncio, of the ongoing investigation, which Nienstedt ordered "for the benefit of the Archdiocese" and because "it would be unfair to ignore these allegations simply because I know them to be false." Viganò is expected to receive a copy of the completed report.

In the Commonweal story, Haselberger, whose release of documents spurred the abuse scandal that has embroiled the archdiocese since last September, said she believed the law firm had "received about 10 sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety on the part of the archbishop."

The lawyers questioned Haselberger April 16 about the relationship between Nienstedt and Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer, currently in prison on child sexual assault charges. She told NCR "the information that I had to contribute was limited."

About a month earlier, the Ramsey County prosecutor had cleared the archbishop of inappropriate touching of a boy on his buttocks during a confirmation photo. When the archdiocese learned of that charge in mid-December, Nienstedt removed himself from public ministry.

Asked why the recent investigation did not warrant a similar leave of absence, Nienstedt told NCR that the archdiocese's policy requires such a move only when a credible accusation of sexual abuse involves a minor.

The investigation is the latest page in the Twin Cities' ongoing clergy abuse scandal that has seen a task force report describe "serious shortcomings" in archdiocesan child protection policies, a parade of depositions of top church officials, and a trial case looming.

"We want it to be over, we want the problem to be resolved," said Paula Ruddy, a board member with the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, whose members include the local Call to Action and several equality organizations. "We want to get at the mission of the church."

Ruddy said coalition members doubt whether Nienstedt retains, or ever had, the trust needed to respond to the scandal, and are waiting for him to resign. Similarly, Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, has detected a "very powerful desire for change" that has gathered force since the fall.

"There is such a lack of trust, such a lack of morale that fresh air is needed," he said.

Among clergy, Fr. Mike Tegeder labeled the situation as "snowballing," saying that since Nienstedt's arrival in 2007 as coadjutor, he has been a bad fit.

"The best thing that could happen is if he left us and let us heal," Tegeder told NCR.

Others not as vocal as Tegeder -- who has been for years one of Nienstedt's most outspoken critics -- have shared his opinions. "If we're looking to [church officials] for leadership, it's not happening," said one retired priest who spoke with NCR on the condition of anonymity. He described a "black cloud" over the archdiocese adversely affecting him and several priests with whom he's spoken.

Similar calls for a leadership change came in the immediate aftermath of the initial abuse reports. In his deposition, Fr. Peter Laird, the former vicar general who resigned as a result of the scandal, stated he twice suggested the archbishop resign.

But not all hold that view. Fr. Patrick Ryan described Nienstedt as a good man "under a barrage" from media and others unhappy with the church, starting in May 2013 when the state opened a three-year window on the statute of limitations.

"A drumbeat to get somebody out? I don't think that's a good way for the church to work," Ryan said.

Nienstedt told NCR he receives daily both calls for him to resign and calls for him to continue leading, with both sides believing "either action is for the betterment of the Church." He cited the work of others in the archdiocese in advancing the church's mission and said he has worked in recent months instituting the task force's recommendations.

Steps such as the task force and an external review of clergy files have been viewed as positives, but each new deposition or investigation has drowned them out, Reid said. He suggested that to avoid doubts over credibility hindering those efforts, Nienstedt should at least temporarily step aside while the nuncio investigates.

For Tom Horner, a former Minnesota governor candidate and public affairs strategist, it's "an erosion of leadership as a whole" that has caused him concern. He told NCR that Nienstedt has "become so much of a lightning rod" -- partly due to his central role in Minnesota's marriage debate -- that his voice in issues facing the region tends to create division more than consensus.

Horner has endorsed a change in leadership and in November was among several prominent donors who redirected donations from the archdiocese to specific groups like Catholic Charities.

The events have also led Larry LeJeune, a parishioner at St. Bartholomew Church in Wayzata, Minn., and former University of St. Thomas board member, to dissociate his family foundation's charitable endeavors until a new archbishop -- someone with "impeccable credentials" and familiar to the area -- is in place.

"It's a mess, and the healing has to start and can't start with him," LeJeune said.

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

A version of this story appeared in the July 18-31, 2014 print issue under the headline: St. Paul-Minneapolis archbishop faces new allegations of sexual misconduct.

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