This morning, ten days after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was criminally charged with child endangerment and five days after Pope Francis announced a new tribunal for bishops who mishandle cases of abusive priests, the Vatican announced the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt, along with one of his auxiliary bishops, Lee Piché. Prosecutors charged the archdiocese with failing to protect the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer, the now laicized priest who is serving a five-year sentence for molesting children and possessing child pornography. (The criminal complaint also named several other accused priests whose cases were mishandled by the archdiocese.) Nienstedt's replacement has not yet been named. In the meantime, Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda as apostolic administrator (not the Twin Cities' remaining auxiliary bishop, Andrew Cozzens)--an unusual move, given the fact that Hebda is already the coadjutor archbishop of Newark, where he lives.
Nienstedt has been buffeted by calls for his resignation ever since his former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, provided Minnesota Public Radio with troubling information about the archdiocese's responses to cases of accused priests. As recently as last July, Nienstedt pledged not to resign. "The resignations were both prudent and necessary," Haselberger told me. "The Holy See has acted wisely by appointing an apostolic administrator."
"It has been my privilege the last seven years to serve this local church," Nienstedt said today in a statement. The emeritus archbishop expressed his appreciation for the "vitality" of the nearly two hundred parishes of the Twin Cities archdiocese, and thanked the clergy, religious, and lay men and women who gave him their support. "I leave with a clear conscience," Nienstedt said, "knowing that my team and I have put in place solid protocols to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults."
Piché had less to say. "The people of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis need healing and hope," he explained. "I was getting in the way of that, and so I had to resign." Piché had been responsible for overseeing the protracted investigation of Nienstedt for alleged sexual misconduct with seminarians, priests, and other adults.
The role of apostolic administrator, according to Archbishop Hebda's letter to Twin Cities Catholics, "is not to introduce change, but rather to facilitate the smooth continuation of the ordinary and essential activities of the church." What that means for the precarious financial position of the archdiocese, which filed for bankruptcy in January, remains unclear.
Update: Today Ramsey County Attorney John Choi hailed the resignations as "an affirmative step" toward reconciliation. "While today’s resignation will be viewed as a positive development by many in our community, the pending criminal action and civil petition and the ongoing investigation will continue. As we have said, the goals of our actions are to hold the Archdiocese accountable, seek justice for the victims and our community, and to take appropriate steps to ensure that what we have alleged and intend to prove about the past conduct of church officials will never be repeated."
More as it develops.