Calls for Resignation Mount for Minnesota Archbishop in Scandals
Just two years ago, the Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis was making headlines as a leader in the battle against same-sex marriage. But for the last year and a half, the archbishop, John C. Nienstedt, has been battling to hold onto his post in the face of a series of scandals, which further deepened on Tuesday with the filing of an explosive affidavit by the former chancellor of the archdiocese.
The troubles started in May 2013 when the accountant for the archdiocese pleaded guilty to stealing more than $670,000 in church funds, and intensified when the chancellor, Jennifer M. Haselberger, quit and went public that autumn with allegations that the archbishop and his inner circle had covered up the actions of pedophile priests in recent years and funneled special payments to them.
This month brought new revelations, first reported by the Catholic journal Commonweal, that Archbishop Nienstedt had earlier this year commissioned an investigation of himself in response to allegations that he had a series of inappropriate sexual relationships with men, including seminarians and priests he supervised, as he moved up the church’s hierarchy in Detroit and Minnesota.
The archbishop said the accusations are “entirely false,” and do not involve minors or criminal conduct, and that he had authorized his auxiliary bishop to hire a law firm in Minneapolis to conduct an independent investigation.
His defenders say he is being pilloried because of his staunch opposition to homosexuality, spending more than $650,000 in church funds in 2012 to campaign for a state constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage. The amendment ultimately failed.
In his previous post, as bishop of the New Ulm Diocese, he advised parishioners against seeing the film “Brokeback Mountain,” a story about two gay cowboys, which he saw as a “human tragedy” about succumbing to lust.
Archbishop Nienstedt, 67, has appeared resolute, saying he made a promise to serve the church and does not intend to quit. He has already weathered a police investigation into an accusation that he touched a child’s buttocks during a photo session at a confirmation. He denied the allegation, and the county attorney declared in March that there was insufficient evidence to charge him. But the cloud of scandal and a pile of lawsuits have led to increased calls for him to resign.
“His ability to lead going forward has become severely compromised,” said Tom Horner, a prominent Catholic public relations consultant and former Independence Party candidate for governor. “He became such a polarizing figure that he now has very little reservoir of good will to draw from as he faces questions about his own activities and how he has managed abuse cases.”
In the latest challenge, on Tuesday, the archdiocese was surprised by a 107-page affidavit from Ms. Haselberger in which she rebuts claims made by the archbishop and his deputies in depositions taken in a sexual abuse lawsuit.
Ms. Haselberger, a canon lawyer who has worked in other dioceses, said that in her more than five years as chancellor for canonical affairs in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop Nienstedt and his top deputies disregarded warnings about priests accused of inappropriate contact with children or with vulnerable female parishioners; declined to report suspected abusers to civil authorities; failed to monitor sex offenders in the clergy; and in various ways violated the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Everything I had heard about Archbishop Nienstedt,” said Ms. Haselberger in a telephone interview, “led me to think that if there was ever a guy who was not going to put up with this kind of stuff, it would be him. Would you ever think that somebody with a reputation for being dogmatically pure would turn a blind eye to this kind of stuff? I was completely unprepared for it.”
She said in the affidavit that “every time” she tried to warn the archbishop and his deputies about abusive priests still serving in ministry “my concerns were ignored, dismissed, or the emphasis was shifted to what was best for the priest involved.”
Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens responded to Ms. Haselberger’s allegations, saying: “Her recollections are not always shared by others within the archdiocese,” but added that after Ms. Haselberger left, the archdiocese had taken steps to address her concerns about the safety of children. One of the accused priests, the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, pleaded guilty in 2012 to possession of child pornography and to sexually abusing two brothers, then 12 and 14. One brother in turn sexually abused his twin 5-year-old sisters, according to a report by Minnesota Public Radio, which has reported extensively on the allegations. Archbishop Nienstedt acknowledged in a sworn deposition in April, which the archdiocese has posted on its website, that he did not provide complete files on abusive priests to the police and did not disclose to parishes which priests were being monitored because of allegations of child abuse or an interest in child pornography.
The archbishop’s deposition was given as part of a lawsuit brought by Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul-based lawyer who has filed hundreds of sex abuse cases against the church.
Lawyers for the church had asked the judge to dismiss the suit, and the affidavit was filed by Mr. Anderson in response.
This is only one lawsuit among more than 40 filed in just over a year. In May 2013, the Minnesota Senate unanimously passed the Child Victims Act, which temporarily lifted the statute of limitations that prevented abuse victims from filing civil lawsuits after they turned 24. The law gives victims a temporary three-year window in which to file civil lawsuits against their abusers and the schools, churches or youth programs where they say abuse occurred.
The accusations about mishandling abuse cases have drawn in not only Archbishop Nienstedt, but also two predecessors, including the retired archbishop Harry Flynn, who had a reputation as a healer and helped craft the American bishops’ policies on abuse. It has also prompted the archdiocese and neighboring dioceses to release the names of priests who were credibly accused of abuse, many of which were never previously disclosed.
Francesco C. Cesareo, the president of Assumption College, in Massachusetts, and chairman of the United States bishops’ national review board on child abuse, said that the board “doesn’t delve into local matters,” but that in general bishops should be following a policy of zero tolerance: “The Charter is very clear that once a credible allegation has been established that the cleric is to be permanently removed from ministry.”