Twin Cities Archbishop Nienstedt vows to 'continue serving as I have been called to do'

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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Apologizing "for the distractions I have inadvertently caused," St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt expressed Wednesday his resolve to lead his archdiocese through its current clergy abuse scandal -- with no intention of resigning.

"A bishop's role is more like that of a father of a family than that of a CEO. I am bound to continue in my office as long as the Holy Father has appointed me here," he said in a column in the archdiocesan Catholic Spirit newspaper, echoing comments he made to NCR in early July.

"I have acknowledged my responsibility in the current crisis we face, and I also take responsibility for leading our archdiocese to a new and better day," Nienstedt said before quoting 2 Chronicles where the spirit of the Lord tells King Jehoshaphat and his army as their enemies approached, "Stop being afraid, and stop being discouraged because of this vast invasion force, because the battle doesn't belong to you, but to God."

As for the calls he resign -- most recently from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial board -- the archbishop said he has heard them all and has heard similar chants since his arrival in the Twin Cities in 2007. He has read letters labeling him "a hypocrite, a domineering boss and a liar," as well as "a courageous moral leader and a true shepherd."

"I will continue to listen to those who express concerns about my leadership, but I will also continue serving as I have been called to do. I am devoted to serving this local Church, and I will continue to do so and to apply these hard lessons that I have learned over the past months.

"While it may be difficult to believe, the suffering we have endured is bearing much fruit in reform of practices and correction of decisions that were made in the past, either by me or my predecessors," Nienstedt said.

He began the column by stating: "To say that this has been a difficult year is quite an understatement."

Nienstedt was scheduled to meet with local media Wednesday; an NCR request for an interview is still pending.

On Tuesday, a law firm completed its investigation into allegations Nienstedt had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with adult men. Nienstedt has called the charges "absolutely and entirely false." In the column, he said he opened the investigation, headed by Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, "because I had nothing to hide and wanted to be vindicated from false allegations, as anyone would."

Beyond that statement, Nienstedt did not address the investigation. It is not clear if its findings will be made public.

In the past year, the archbishop said he has "re-examined the words I have spoken and the actions I have, or have not taken." He apologized to those offended and hurt as a result of his personality and administrative style, "with its strong point of view," and promised to "soften my words" and spend more time among the people than behind his desk.

While admitting "it is very clear that we did not handle all complaints the way we should have in the past," Nienstedt said he has always been honest with the local church and repeated his claim that he never knowingly covered up instances of clergy sexual abuse of minors.

"I have, however, been too trusting of our internal process and not as hands-on as I could have been in matters of priest misconduct," he said.

Just four months earlier in April, Nienstedt presented a differing self-evaluation during a deposition taken as part of a lawsuit brought by John Doe 1 against the archdiocese, the Winona, Minn., diocese and former priest Thomas Adamson.

"Typically I'm a hands-on person," he said at the time.

In an affidavit filed in connection the Doe lawsuit, former canonical chancellor Jennifer Haselberger noted a November 2012 memo from Nienstedt in which he "stated they he thought the priests were 'overreacting' " in response to revelations of abuse and misconduct by Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer, currently in prison for sexually abusing two boys and possessing child pornography.

Haselberger has contested she brought concerns about Wehmeyer to Nientedt's attention as early as 2009, when the priest was under review for a pastor appointment. While interviewed by the law firm investigating Nienstedt, she said she was told one of the issues at hand was whether his relationship with Wehmeyer led him to ignore her warnings.

Learning that, as well as comments from Nienstedt in December -- where he stated that the recent reports surprised him and he thought the abuse issue was resolved by the time he first arrived -- caused her to join those endorsing his resignation.

Since the first reports alleging mishandled allegations emerged last September, Nienstedt said he has instituted a "victims first" philosophy and through a consultation team has reached out to victims of sexual abuse and has spoken to them and parishioners and families of priests he removed from ministry.

To reflect the new focus, the archdiocese is hiring a new victims' liaison that would join Nienstedt's consultation team. Earlier this month, it announced a search for a director of the recently formed office of safe environment and ministerial standards.

The column did little to appease Nienstedt's critics. In a statement, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests accused Nienstedt of continuing deceptive behavior that has endangered children.

"He claims he's not been 'hands on' enough. That's just not true. He's been plenty 'hands on,' but directed in precisely the wrong direction -- toward secrecy, not safety," the statement said.

Fr. Michael Tegeder, pastor of St. Francis Cabrini Church in Minneapolis, called the column inadequate and his quoting of 2 Chronicles was "a pretty bizarre thing."

"Does he see us as enemies? ... To think that this is all God and him against the world is pretty symptomatic of the problem here," he said.

In the column, Nienstedt wrote, "The learning curve of the past 10 months has prepared my staff and me to lead this local Church through the present crisis to a much better place. The challenges are there, to be sure, but we are more ready to tackle them now than at any time in our past history."

"I regret that some have lost their confidence in me. I hope ultimately to win back that trust," he wrote.

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

A version of this story appeared in the Aug 15-28, 2014 print issue under the headline: Twin Cities archbishop vows to 'continue serving'.

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