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Archbishop Nienstedt under investigation. (UPDATED)

Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis is being investigated for “multiple allegations” of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other men, according to the archbishop’s former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger. The investigation is being conducted by a law firm hired by the archdiocese. Nienstedt denies the allegations.

The investigation was spurred by information the archdiocese received late last year, according to another person with knowledge of the investigation. (This inquiry is not related to a December 2013 accusation that Nienstedt touched a boy’s buttocks during a confirmation photo shoot. The archbishop denied that allegation, and, following an investigation, the county prosecutor did not bring charges. Reportedly the case has been reopened.) Near the end of the year, it came to light that a former Twin Cities priest had accused Nienstedt of making unwanted sexual advances.

The archbishop agreed to hire an outside law firm to investigate the accusation. By early 2014, the archdiocese had selected the top-ranked Minneapolis firm of Greene Espel. Nienstedt, along with auxiliary bishops Lee Piché and Andrew Cozzens, flew to Washington, D.C., to inform the apostolic nuncio of the allegations. Over the course of the investigation, lawyers have interviewed current and former associates and employees of Nienstedt—including Haselberger, who resigned in protest in April 2013.

“Based on my interview with Greene Espel—as well as conversations with other interviewees—I believe that the investigators have received about ten sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety on the part of the archbishop dating from his time as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as Bishop of New Ulm, and while coadjutor and archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” Haselberger told me. What’s more, “he also stands accused of retaliating against those who refused his advances or otherwise questioned his conduct.”

The allegations are nothing more than a “personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage,” Nienstedt said in a written statement. He also suspects that accusers are coming forward because of “difficult decisions” he has made, but, citing privacy laws, he would not elaborate.

“I have never engaged in sexual misconduct and certainly have not made any sexual advances toward anyone,” Nienstedt told me. “The allegations are a decade old or more, prior to my service as archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” he continued, emphasizing that “none of the allegations involve minors or illegal or criminal behavior.” The “only accusation,” Nienstedt explained, is of “improper touching (of the person’s neck),” and was made by a former priest.

The archbishop has been under intense scrutiny since September 2013, when Haselberger went public with damning accounts of the way the archdiocese had dealt with clerics accused of sexual misconduct. One of those priests was Curtis Wehmeyer, a man with a history of inappropriate sexual behavior who was nevertheless promoted by Nienstedt to become pastor of two parishes. Wehmeyer went on to molest children at one of those parishes. One of the questions investigators have been asking is whether the archbishop had an unprofessional relationship with Wehmeyer.

“Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer was an archdiocesan priest and I was his archbishop,” Nienstedt said. He characterized his relationship with Wehmeyer as “professional” and “pastoral,” and explained that it preceded his “learning of [Wehmeyer’s] sexual abuse of minors.”

Nienstedt was named an auxiliary bishop of Detroit in 1996, and became bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota, in 2001. Just six years later he was appointed coadjutor of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He was installed as archbishop in 2008. Before long, Nienstedt had established one of the signature issues of his episcopate: homosexuality. His statements on that issue add controversy to the investigation of his own behavior.

“Those who actively encourage or promote homosexual acts…formally cooperate in a grave evil and, if they do so knowingly and willingly, are guilty of mortal sin,” Nienstedt wrote late in 2007. That echoed a column he wrote the year before—while bishop of New Ulm—cautioning Catholics against watching Brokeback Mountain, a film about two married cowboys who fall for one another. He wondered whether Hollywood knew just how dangerous their “agenda” was: “Surely they must be aware that they have turned their backs on God and the standards of God in their quest to make evil look so attractive.”

Before the 2010 midterm elections, Nienstedt turned his attention to the burgeoning gay-marriage movement. He recorded an introduction on a DVD opposing gay marriage, which was sent to four hundred thousand Minnesota Catholics. The same year a Catholic mother wrote to him pleading for acceptance for her gay son. He recommended she consult the Catechism. “Your eternal salvation may well depend upon a conversation [sic] of heart on this topic,” he replied. And in 2012, Nienstedt led a coalition of religious leaders pushing for an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Reportedly, Nienstedt committed $650,000 to those efforts. The amendment failed.

But by the fall of 2013, Nienstedt’s focus would be pulled away from gay marriage to an issue of greater urgency: the sexual abuse of children by priests. In September of last year, Minnesota Public Radio reported that the archdiocese was aware of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer’s history of misconduct when Nienstedt promoted him to pastor. He refused to inform the parish staff of Wehmeyer’s troubling past. The cleric eventually molested the children of a parish employee.

As MPR and other news outlets continued coverage of that and related stories, Archbishop Nienstedt announced a task force that would review “any and all issues” related to clergy misconduct. Its fifty-three page report—released April 14—criticized the archdiocese for “serious shortcomings,” but did not mention the investigation of Nienstedt. That's because the task force "was established to review the archdiocesan policies on clergy misconduct toward minors," Nienstedt said. By the time Greene Espel learned about the task force, the group had "disbanded," having completed its report, according to Bishop Piché. "Nevertheless," he continued, "a call from an archdiocesan official promptly was made to a former member of the task force." The task force has stated that it will not speak publicly about its report. [Update: MPR reports that the chair of the task force "said she knew nothing about the investigation."]  *

Around the time the task force published its report, Greene Espel attorneys phoned Haselberger to set up a meeting, but she was skeptical. “There is no precedent in the church for an investigation of this kind,” she told me. Since she resigned last year, “the archdiocese has been distinctly hostile toward me.” That “caused me to wonder if this was some sort of trick.” Her skepticism diminished when she met with the lawyers days later. They produced a January 31 letter from Nienstedt to auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché authorizing him to oversee an investigation, Haselberger said, along with an e-mail naming another priest to act as a liaison between the archdiocese and the investigators.

“I did this for the benefit of the archdiocese,” Nienstedt explained, because “I knew it would be unfair to ignore the allegations simply because I knew them to be false.” And that’s what he would have done if he learned of similar allegations against any priest, the archbishop said.

Haselberger informed Greene Espel attorneys of a letter she’d seen from Wehmeyer to Nienstedt thanking the archbishop for a recent dinner. She also told investigators that the archbishop had asked for assistance in arranging for him to visit Wehmeyer in the inpatient sex-offender treatment program where he was residing before sentencing. At the time he had not met with Wehmeyer’s victims or their family, according to Haselberger. The archbishop denied that he sought such assistance, and said he never visited Wehmeyer in prison or at any treatment facility.

Greene Espel lawyers wanted to know whether Nienstedt asked to visit any other detained priests. Two other priests had been in jail while Nienstedt was in St. Paul. They had both been released by January of 2013, when Nienstedt wanted to visit Wehmeyer. “To my knowledge,” Haselberger replied, “he never visited them or expressed any desire to do so.” As far as she could recall, Nienstedt struck up a friendship with Wehmeyer “after I warned him about Wehmeyer’s history in 2009.” Nienstedt said that the two had a “professional, pastoral relationship” before he learned that Wehmeyer had abused children.

Haselberger asked the Green Espel attorneys what the firm planned to do with the information it was gathering. “They said that their task was to investigate, and that they would be providing a report to the archdiocese,” she said. Once the report is complete, Nienstedt told me, it will be given to the pope’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who will presumably inform the pope about its contents.

“I pray that the truth would come out as a result of the investigation,” Nienstedt said.

* This paragraph has been corrected. The original version included a comment from Nienstedt erroneously claiming that Greene Espel had advised the archdiocese not to inform the task force of the investigation of the archbishop.


Update: Archbishop Nienstedt released this statement after my story was published. Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché also released a statement.



Commenting Guidelines

I've been in a few homes that have, or had, a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" hanging on the dining-room wall.  I can't help wondering how many gay-hating "good Christians" sit down to eat under a masterpiece painted by a gay man.

And even perhaps with one or two gay men represented in the painting.

”Right now, the allegations about this bishop are still unproven. However, since there are apparently quite a few allegations, one might suspect fire because of the amount of smoke. We can't really judge the man right now because we don't yet know what is needed to know to come to a judgment."

Strange how you whisk away Matthew 7:1-5.

"It is very clear that O'Brien was hypocritical - not only in violating his vows, but in condemning all gay sexual relationships while engaging in them."

First, secular clergy do not take vows. Second, you could claim on the same basis that all Catholics who are in conflict with the letter of church sex ethics are hypocrites. Third, O'Brien was against gay marriage but he did not condemn gay relationships in concreto, but had the usual pastoral outlook of understanding accommodation. Fourth, you do not know what the state of his conscience was about the gay relationships he had. 

Jim McCrea, when you write: "On one hand I feel deeply sorry for him.  On the other, I viscerally am shouting:  "Yes, yes.  Get the SOB."" you give credence to those who talk of the "gay mob". 


"You talk as though Archbishop Nienstedt has given no evidence of being an enabler of homosexual behavior, when in fact he clearly enabled Fr. Wehmeyer to engage in child abuse by appointing pastor not once but twice after Wehmeyer had been credibly accused of abuse.  These appointments clearly put him on the side of the abuser."


Ann Olivier, it is very hurtful to gay folk to have "homosexual behavior" amalgamated with "child abuse" as you do here, I hope not deliberately. Also, diocesan officials know of Wehmeyer's interested in 19 year old boys, viz "homosexual behavior". That is what your are referring to when you say the bishop know that Wehmeyer was "credibly accused of abuse". You write in such a way as to suggest that the bishop knew that Wehmeyer was known to be credibly accused of child abuse, a very different thing. 


" Interesting, isn't it, that the Vatican and some American bishops direct their nastiness at homosexual men in the seminaries and at priests, but they never seem to bother about lesbian nuns.  In other words, the issue for them is really gay priests -- and that is consistent with the psychological diagnosis that their motives are simply their own deep psychological problems.  If the problem were really homosexuality as such they would also try to eliminate lesbian nuns."

I never heard anyone complain that they could not stay in a convent because of a prevailing lesbian atmosphere, and I never heard that lesbian sisters are sexually active to  a high degree. The Vatican have presumably not heard such complaints either. The women in Irish Magdalene Laundries were never sexually abused by the sisters, perhaps an indication that sisters are sexually more sober and respectful than male clerics.

"The irony is most sweet and I for one hope that Nienstedt ends up being exposed for exactly what he condemns in others. The hypocrisy of the man would be shown to be complete. Note how Nienstedt defends himself by saying that the allegations did not involve minors. Isn't that just special!"


This is Michael-in-Norfolk in "gay mob" mode.


He continues: "I hope the allegations prove true.  About the only thing that could make the situation more delicious would be to learn that among those with whom Nienstedt had relationships are Ken Cuccinelli and Rick Santorum, two other tortured, self-loathing closeted gays."


This is where Commonweal and the NCR seem to hang out these days.

Fr. O'Leary: re: your comment of July 3rd, 4:37 am (your most recent as I compose this comment): I didn't see the comment here from which you quote - the one referencing Ken Cuccinelli and Rick Santorum?  From what are you quoting?

Ah yes, JOL to the rescue.  The endless posts now from the underground gay clerical ranks to protect one of their own.  Are we furiously circling the wagons?

Let's just let this play out rather than be subjected to your endless Lancan fivorlities and ridiculousnesses?

Why don't you pay attention to what his former second in command said and did - Laird resigned and told Nienstedt to do the same.  Read his deposition-it might slow your rantings.

Maybe everyone should take the high road and stop the innuendo, against Niendstedt, Haselberger, those individuals who have accused Nienstedt, the so-called GLBT "community" (as if we are not part of their "community" or they are not part of ours), and those who have the effrontery to ask for compensation for having been the object of abuse.  One and all.

Also, sexual harassment of employees is not criminal (assuming it didn't involve an actual criminal assault).

And the problem I have with the idea of repressed homosexuality giving rise to especially virulent gay bashing is that for every example I can think of, I can also think of especially virulent gay bashing by indisputably straight people.  Like, say, some of the comments in this thread.

Barbara - thank you!

JOL:  to me, there is nothing more despicable than a Roman Catholic churchman who wraps himself in disgusting (self-)righteousness and does all he can do to repress the LGBT communities (we are not a homogeneous group but as many and varied as heterosexuals), all the while he himself is guilty of acting out his sexual repression on those over whom he has some form of power or control.  I am quite happy when one of these men is revealed for the hypocrite that he is.

I put these men on a plane even lower than politicians who are guilty of the same because politicians (usually) claim no moral status for themselves nor their pontifications or actions, nor rely on their organization that makes a point of bolstering this claim.

If that makes me a member of the “gay mob,” so be it.

...indisputably straight people.


From time to time, intrepid explorers return from remote areas of the world with reports that straight people exist, but there is no scientific consensus about them. And at this level of discourse, nothing is beyond dispute.

I always learn something from Barbara's comments, and I admire her habits of thought: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.

The quote I gave above is from :

Generally, I like Michael's postings -- he is a friend of Andrew Sullivan (who seems to be more cautious on his issue).

Let's all reread Matthew 7:1-5.

checking, this is what Sullivan has:

He does seem to jump the gun as well, but possibly less ardently given his huge blooper over the Tuam Babies story.

John Prior:  True.  Nothing is certain or beyond dispute.  One is always working with probabilities. 

P.S.  John, if you approach this from the side of GLBT identity (especially the "T"), I think you understand what I mean -- there is nothing more infuriating than having other people seek to define you from their own perspective and values.  That is the ecosystem which generates a belief in the possibility of "converting" gay men and women to heterosexuals. 

Although I do understand that a person is more likely to "pretend" to be something they are not when society considers the assumed status to be normative, nonetheless, trying to define someone else is not a less suspect undertaking just because the object of the undertaking self-identifies as being part of a majority. 


...there is nothing more infuriating than having other people seek to define you from their own perspective and values.

And nothing more confusing, either. Because the next day, if the rhetorical occasion calls for it, they will declare themselves sinners hopelessly astray and in need of redemption. Yet still utterly sure of their prescriptions for other people's lives.

Maybe it's just a matter of having too much time on one's hands. If you have renounced sexual expression in all its forms and chosen a life of celibacy, you will have the leisure to work out "natural law," bind life tightly in syllogisms, and make everything tidy and clear.

Nature scoffs and life moves on. But real people suffer needlessly.

John Prior, for all you or I know, the bishop may really be trying to honor a commitment to celibate continence. He is mocked for that as if it were impossible. He may have all sorts of problems and may have made foolish, ambiguous gestures or simply been misinterpreted -- as could happen to anyone. People seem to be in a huge rush to convict him of hypocrisy, perhaps fearing that be the time the investigation is complete the story will have paled and will not offer the same juicy red meat for venting rage. All very typical of American society today.


I confess that when I wrote that second paragraph. I was scarcely thinking of John Nienstedt or of difficulties in maintaining celibacy. I had Thomas Aquinas more in mind, and all the long train of experts down to the present day who are sure they can discern God's will for others as well as for themselves without getting up from their chairs and going out to examine his masterwork in any detail. The world as it actually exists confounds such assurance. It seems to me.

As for Nienstedt, I am in no rush to convict him of hypocrisy. I would be content never to have heard of him. But I think that something is lost when any bishop becomes the center of attention in his see.

Barbara: > "One is always working with probabilities."

Decision-making in the real world almost always means working with partial infornation, including information that has unknown accuracy and ranging precision.  In these circumstances, it is useful to use the mathematics of stochastic processes (including "personal probabiltes" for some problems) to help guide good decisons. This may be true even when a "true" condition exists.  If summoned to a jury, I must reach a decision under uncertainty, and so I will use me sort of "probabilitie" as guides.

I took your initial point to be that we Commonweal readers hoave no pending decision, judgment is not called for.  [Which also is one non-theological way of reading Mark, too.] The Nuncio will reach a decision, peraps the Pope, too. If we were members of the Diocese of Minneapolis, we might have other decisions to make. Right now, I do not.

But others may make a condiional proposition: If the  is true, then I am justified to feel ...

Mark L


John Prior, I don't disagree with you.  And especially -- the focus on the person (here, Nienstedt) obliterates true discussion -- whether these allegations are true or whether they are false does not resolve anything or help people who are suffering needlessly, as you say.  I think people want these allegations to be true because they want to show that the emperor has no clothes so definitively that it must shift the paradigm of the discussion.  As you also say, it might shitf the paradigm, but probalby only back to the "we are all sinners in need of redemption," rather than, maybe we need to recognize the natural order has more dimensions than we want to admit.  This is why I no longer grace the Catholic Church with my presence, I just can't stand this endless, closed loop.

Obviously, we have to wait and see what plays out - the firm hired by the church to investigate the church - sounds suspiciously like the church appointing Whitt to "oversee" and limit data, on the supposedly independent council earlier in the year.  As far as the allegations go, first off, I personally don't want this to cloud the child abuse crisis that's apparently ongoing - two consenting adults... I have a small issue with the supervisor/ underling relationship, but not really.

I do find it beyond ironic though if it turns out to be true, after his hate-filled rage toward homosexuals, and their parents. And often, where there's smoke, there's a guy sitting on the edge of the bed, or in an easy chair, smoking a cigarette, with a relaxed look on his face......

Reading Jennifer Haselberger's testimony, what a courageous woman, what a nightmare she was exposed to.

It's going to take a long time to heal.

 One ought to begin an examination of the problem of "sexuality and the priesthood" with the understanding that the Church's rule of celibacy contradicts the prctice ofJesus who according to tradition called eleven married men (and one unmarried --  John) to be the Apostles from whom all ordained receive their authority. The Orthodox Churches allow a married clergy and their decent from the Apostles is as valid as that of the Bishop of Rome. The Church's teachings condemning  masturbation as a mortal sin; the Church's demand that every conjugal act have procreation as its primary goal; the Church's condemning al sexual relations outside of marriage -- These are all denials of the person as an embodied being, and therefore they are "disordered teachings." With this understanding I believe that:

If a priest or Bishop has mature sexual relations with another freely consenting human being, male or female, I find no fault and hope that the experience of his own humanity would make him compassionate toward others suffering from the  "disorded" Church teachings on homosexuality and on sex outside of marriage..

If a priest or Bishop uses his position of authority to coerce another under his supervision into a sexual relationship, this is a grievous offense against justice and mercy.

If a priest or Bishop lets another know that he is sexually interested but respects the other's rejection and does nothing to harm the other's interests, this is in the nature of sexuality and there is no fault. 

If a priest or Bishop enters into a freely consenting sexual relationship with another and in return allows the other to commit acts of injustice like preying on young children this is a grievous offense against justice and mercy.


Please forgive the spelling and grammar errors. I didn't review the wording.