Grant Gallicho April 22, 2014 - 7:26pm
On April 2, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis was deposed by attorney Jeff Anderson as part of a lawsuit filed by a man who claims he was molested by a priest in the 1970s. The plaintiff alleges that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, along with the Diocese of Winona, created a public nuisance by failing to disclose information about clerics accused of sexual abuse. At a press conference this afternoon, Anderson released a slightly redacted transcript of the deposition. The archdiocese posted the transcript and full video to its website, noting that Anderson did not ask any questions about the abuse allegations that occasioned the deposition.
The wide-ranging and often contentious conversation reveals an archbishop who felt comfortable delegating authority to deal with the abuse crisis--even though he's "a hands-on person"--and who still believes that he and his delegates have done a good job handling the problem. According to Nienstedt's sworn testimony, one of those delegates recommended that conversations regarding accused priests shouldn't be put in writing because they could be discovered in litigation.
"You followed his advice, didn't you?" Anderson asked the archbishop.
"In terms of?"
"Not putting things into writing."
"Yes," Nienstedt replied.
The man who offered that advice, according to Nienstedt, is Fr. Kevin McDonough. He served as vicar general under the previous archbishop, Harry Flynn, and then as "delegate for safe environment" under Nienstedt. Last week, a task force created by Nienstedt to investigate diocesan abuse procedures sharply criticized McDonough for mishandling reports of clergy misdonduct.
McDonough features in two troubling cases brought to light after Nienstedt's former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, went to the police and the press with her concerns about how the archdiocese had handled them. In one case, McDonough objected to the archdiocesan review board's recommendation to warn a parish staff that their new pastor had a history of sexual misconduct (with adults), which included allegedly propositioning a nineteen and twenty-year-old at a bookstore, trying to pick up teenagers at gas station, driving drunk, and being spotted by a cop cruising for sex. That priest--and he is still a priest--is Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer. He's in jail for molesting children and possessing child pornography. Among his victims were the children of a parish employee.
In another case, McDonough advised Nienstedt that even though an independent report had found "borderline illegal" pornographic images on a priest's computer, there was no need to report them to the police because they were probably "enticements to take a further step to view pornography." "Were Father Shelley to have clicked on such advertisements, he would likely have been caught in a law-enforcement sting," McDonough claimed. Neither McDonough nor Nienstedt reported this to the police, even though they are mandated reporters required by law to immediately (within twenty-four hours) inform civil authorities when they suspect child abuse--which includes possessing child porn. (The Washington County prosecutor declined to press charges against the priest. It's not clear whether the Ramsey County attorney will pursue the case.)
McDonough was deposed last Wednesday (the transcript has not been released).
Under questioning, Nienstedt said that he never reprimanded or faulted McDonough for the way he carried out his duties as child-safety czar. "I've always believed that Fr. McDonough had the best intentions," Nienstedt told Anderson. When pressed, the only disagreement the archbishop could recall was with McDonough's decision not to tell Wehmeyer's parish about his "drunk driving"--he didn't mention the cleric's history of sexual misconduct. "Any other actions taken by Kevin McDonough as your delegate for safe environment or as vicar general that you look back on now and say, 'He blew it'?" Anderson asked.
"I don't believe so," Nienstedt said.
"So you think he did a good job about that huh?"
"I believe he did."
"Do you think you're doing a good job?" Anderson continued.
"I believe I am, yes." In fact, "the only mistake that I know I made" had nothing to do with Wehmeyer or Shelley. It was about "not removing the faculties" from another priest.
What about any other priests or officials of the archdiocese? Have they mishandled abuse allegations? "No," Nienstedt said. "I don't believe so." (Of course, the archbishop's lawyers would have advised against admitting fault in sworn testimony.)
Anderson raised the case of Fr. Michael Stevens, reminding Nienstedt that "in the mid-1980s, he pleaded guilty to criminal sexual misconduct with a minor." But Nienstedt is "not aware of that" because "that was all before my time." Except, as Anderson points out, Stevens is in the archdiocese's monitoring program, and after his guilty plea, after he was suspended from ministry, he was working in several parishes performing "IT work." That work was brought to an end, but Nienstedt couldn't recall when. What about why? "I don't have that answer," Nienstedt said. "I would presume Fr. McDonough would know. I think that happened under his watch."
Naturally, Anderson asked: "But your watch as archbishop, correct?" Nienstedt can't recall that either: "I don't have those dates." Nor did he have any recollection of Haselberger--his former chancellor for canonical affairs--raising concerns with him about Stevens doing IT work as recently as 2011.
During that exchange, Nienstedt told Anderson that Fr. Peter Laird, who was vicar general when the Wehmeyer case broke, resigned of his own volition because he disagreed with the archbishop's decision to make Wehmeyer pastor, and thought news reports made him look bad. "My recollection is that he said...'I'm being painted with the same brush you are.' And he said, 'I need to resign to maintain my integrity."
In February, Minnesota Public Radio reported a secret recording of Nienstedt telling a roomful of priests that Laird was "the person who's been hurt the worst in this." But in the deposition Nienstedt didn't remember "the exact words" he used, and said that he didn't listen to the recording released by MPR.
Reading the transcript, you can't help but wonder whether Nienstedt has been keeping track of the stories that put him in front of Jeff Anderson. During a lengthy exchange about Shelley--the priest whose computer contained "borderline illegal" images--Nienstedt is fuzzy on basic facts about the case, such as which of his employees advised him to do what with those photos. For several pages of testimony, he claims that the archdiocese turned over the files to the police in 2004--that's why, he says, he didn't immediately have the material sent to the cops when Haselberger discovered them in 2012. "It was taken as a fact," Nienstedt testified, "that that had already been turned over to the police and the police had made a decision on it." But in fact they had not. Nienstedt later corrected his mistaken, but curiously detailed account. He got confused, he explained, because the archdiocese had hired a retired law-enforcement officer to review the images.
And when Anderson questioned Nienstedt about Wehmeyer, again the archbishop seemed oddly uninformed about the case. He repeatedly claims that Haselberger warned him that Wehmeyer shouldn't be promoted to pastor because he's "same-sex attracted," that he had propositioned two young men at a bookstore. What about Haselberger's concern about the cleric's diagnosis of sexual addiction? Anderson asked. "I don't recall that." And: "I don't remember that at all." Which is odd, because Nienstedt said that he read the report from the treatment facility Wehmeyer was sent to after his misconduct came to light. Nienstedt also can't recall that Wehmeyer was trying to pick up teenagers at a gas station. (There's more to say about the Wehmeyer case--especially the question of when the archdiocese learned of the first allegation and how long it took to report it to police. To be continued.)
Thanks to MPR's reporting, all of that information has been part of the public record for months. Apparently Archbishop Nienstedt hasn't been keeping up.
Nor has he shown any interest in personally examining priest personnel files. Anderson asked whether Nienstedt has ever said, "I want to review the file of Father X," in order to make fully informed decisions. "I don't recall that I have," Nienstedt answered.
No, he's relied on others to keep him informed, to make sure his promise that no credibly accused priests remain in ministry holds true. But it wasn't until he hired an outside consulting firm that he realized one such priest had been working in parishes--Fr. Kenneth LeVan.
Nienstedt removed him last month.*
* An earlier version of this sentence incorrectly stated
that LeVan was removed in December.