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The Nienstedt shuffle.

Yesterday, after shying away from the press for weeks, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis responded to the disturbing revelations about the way his diocese has been handling priests accused of sexual misconduct. He apologized to victims and their families. He promised to do better. And he pledged "before God and in memory of my beloved parents"--whose deaths he recounts at the top of his weekly column--"to do all in my power to restore trust here in this local church."

A tall order--made taller still by Nienstedt's reluctance to come clean about the facts of the cases in question. (Last month, Nienstedt's former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, publicly revealed that the current and past archbishops of St. Paul-Minneapolis promoted a priest with a history of sexual misconduct--who later went on to abuse children--and failed to notify civil authorities when they learned that another priest had possessed "borderline illegal" images of what appeared to be minors.) In an e-mail interview with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR)--his first since they started reporting on this fiasco weeks ago--Nienstedt answers relatively straightforward questions with something shy of the whole truth.

MPR led by asking why Nienstedt didn't go to the police after learning about the priest whose computer apparently contained "borderline illegal" photos. Here's Nienstedt's response:

NIENSTEDT: The analysis completed in 2004 did not find evidence of possession of child pornography. The images that [former chancellor for canonical affairs Jennifer] Haselberger showed to coworkers were of pop-up ads. Pop-up ads are unsolicited and often attach to the hard drive without the user's awareness or permission.

The St. Paul police completed a 7-month review of the same material from the hard drive that was analyzed in 2004 and came to the same conclusion: there is no evidence of possession of child pornography.

Not quite. What really happened is that in 2004--when Harry Flynn was archbishop--it was discovered that a computer that had belonged to a local priest contained thousands of pornographic images. The archdiocese hired a firm to investigate, and its report found "borderline illegal" images on the hard drive. Even though Minnesota law requires priests to report suspected child abuse--which includes child pornography (defined broadly to include "lewd" displays of genitalia)--it appears that no one with the archdiocese called the police. The priest was sent to treatment, returned to ministry, and the report--along with copies of the hard drive--ended up in the chancery basement.

It wasn't until last year, while Jennifer Haselberger was checking up on the priest (because Nienstedt was considering giving him a new assignment) that the '04 report and discs again saw the light of day. In memos to Nienstedt and other diocesan officials, she quoted the report at some length. She printed a few of the images and showed them to Nienstedt. And apparently her interventions had an effect on the archbishop, because in May 2012 he composed a letter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, seeking guidance. In that letter, he acknowledged that the priest has possessed "borderline illegal" images. Nienstedt even shared his concern that he could be subject to criminal prosecution. But he didn't send the letter. And he didn't call the cops.

When Haselberger showed him the "borderline illegal" photos, she reminded Nienstedt in a subsequent memo, he did not dispute that they were pornographic. But now he does. Now he repeats the non-expert opinion of Fr. Kevin McDonough--who had served as vicar general under retired Archbishop Harry Flynn, and at the time was Nienstedt's "safe environment liason"--that the images were not pornographic, but rather pop-up ads, "unsolicited, [which] often attach to the hard drive without the user's awareness or permission."

First, Nienstedt repeats McDonough's opinion as though it's fact. It's not. Haselberger rejected McDonough's assessment in a memo to Nienstedt. And no one has suggested that the report itself floated the idea that the images came from pop-up ads that magically installed potentially illegal images to the priest's hard drive. It's disingenuous for Nienstedt to pretend otherwise.

Second, that's not really how pop-up ads work. If you're innocently browsing, say, the website containing the State of Minnesota's statute on child pornography, you're not going to see pop-up ads for kiddie porn. But even if you are looking at legal pornography sites, how likely is it that they're surreptitiously installing child porn on your computer? The images wouldn't be that hard to trace.

Does he think Minnesota Catholics haven't read MPR's own excellent reporting (pace the deeply confused president of the Catholic League) on this case? Has he? Because a person who had actually read up on this case would have a hard time keeping a straight face while claiming that

St. Paul police completed a 7-month review of the same material from the hard drive that was analyzed in 2004 and came to the same conclusion: there is no evidence of possession of child pornography.

Nienstedt makes it sound like the police reviewed all the evidence they asked for and determined no crime had been committed. Again, that's not what happened. What happened was the police phoned the chancery and asked for the evidence Haselberger told them about, and a diocesan attorney made them wait before handing over a few discs--and, crucially, he withheld the report. Nienstedt asserts that the police had "the same material from the hard drive that was analyzed in 2004," but the investigating officer wasn't so sure. "Whether these discs given to me were the actual discs or copies of those discs after first asking for them, I do not know," he wrote in his report.

Of course, Minnesota law doesn't care whether a mandated reporter has proof beyond reasonable doubt that abuse has occured. It merely requires him to notify civil authorities when he has reason to believe abuse had occured--and suspecting possession of child porn counts because kids do not pose themselves for such photos. Nienstedt told MPR that he hasn't broken the law. But the case isn't closed. The police have reopened it.

In his column, Nienstedt ritually acknowledges the heinous crime of sexual abuse and apologizes to victims. "Over the last decade some serious mistakes have been made," he admits. But he doesn't name them.

He says he's learned a good deal over the past several weeks. But he doesn't say what those lessons were.

He says "we must also be committed to honesty and transparency." A good start would be not shading the truth when answering predictable questions from the media about what happened on his watch--questions Catholic parents in the Twin Cities deserve answers to.

He promises to "recommit today never knowingly to assign a clergy member to a parish or school if I have concerns that he will do harm to the community." But it's 2013. Boston blew up over a decade ago. Why should a Catholic bishop have to "recommit" to the obvious?

He notes that "there is also a question as to the prudence of the judgments that have been made." But whose judgments? Recently resigned vicar general Fr. Peter Laird? No, the archdiocese said, "he did nothing improper." Nienstedt prefers not to say. The task force he appointed to investigate this mess is supposed to provide some answers, but its work will hold value only to the extent that it's willing to name names.

Mistakes don't get made by no one. And no one is confused about where the buck stops in a Catholic diocese.



Commenting Guidelines

@ Jim Pauwels:  No need to pout.  It's just that when you're in a hole, stop digging.

All of us have an obligation to correct the public record and intentionally manipulated public impressions perpetrated by the hierarchs and their minons. 

Unwarrented assertions from the dubious JJ study is tricky business because the so-called Dallas Charter and JJ study and its audits are little more than an elaborate public relations scheme cooked up by a bunch of canon lawyers and political consultants for the hierarchs to staunch the ever-widening wound on the church's (really, the hierarchs) reputation as a cascade of sexual abuse narratives became public back in 2000.  

The hierarchs were in full panic mode that their continued political hegemony over the church was threatened - and they're right about that one!  The Dallas Charter has little to do with the safety of children and is mainly designed to support the continued political survival of the hierarchs.

Prime example of this is the much ballyhooed Zero-Tolerance policy - the Ratzinger-led CDF eviserated that one by insisting that canon law trump any zero-tolerance policy, and Ratzinger ordered that all - I love this term, so Roman - of the most notorious cases be referred exclusively to a secret Roman tribunal under his jurisdiction for adjudication.  [I wouldn't be surprised that secret tribunal is still operating in the Vatican to this today.]  Since the Zero-Tolerance policy is a sham, that is why credibly accused priest predators have been allowed to continue in ministry (as in New Jersey, Kansas City, Minnesota, etc.).

Also not publicly well understood is that the Ratzinger-led CDF essentially neutered all the diosecean review boards, mainly because they were composed primarily of laity.  Can't have the serfs  controlling the futures of the celibate lords and princes!  Levada told me directly that "the Vatican" [read Ratzinger] could not abide with women being in a position to hold bishops and priests to account.  [Jim P., I'm not making this up.]

Furthermore, the Ratzinger-led CDF insisted on many changes from the draft Dallas Charter.  Chief among them was that hierarchs (bishops and cardinals) would not be within the purview of the review boards.  Neither would religious priests.  [Notice that much of the continuing scandal for the church in more recent years is tied to the behavior and complicity of hierarchs and religious priests.  A coincidence?]

Jim Pauwels:  Thank you for acknowledging my "bad experience" on the SF review board, but whatever I experienced pales in the face of the tortured lives of the survivors of abuse and exploitation by priests.  It is in the memory of the survivors that we Catholics must be resolute in our pursuit of justice, and the reform and renewal of the priesthood from parish to pope.

To paraphrase Lincoln:  That we Catholics here highly resolve that these blessed Innocents shall not have suffered in vain.

Bill D - very interesting stuff.  As you lay out the case there, the possibility certainly seems to be there for an abuser to manipulate a leaky system of formation and evaluation for suitability.  And as I noted recently, the shortage of priests seems to cast its shadow over Carlos' history: get him ordained unless there is decisive evidence not to.

Stronger checks and balances during formation wouldn't be the magic bullet to block all abusers from being ordained - but it certainly should be one major component of a holistic approach.  I really do believe that the compliance training and background checks are another pillar.  And a reform of the process for handling accusations is another. Grant had published a series of recommendations to this effect some time ago, not sure where to lay my hands on them now.  But all of his recommendations seemed sensible to me.


JimJ: That comment on trolling is the sort of thing that sets JimP's teeth on edge.

I still want to know why, given the oath that cardinals take, anyone should believe anything they say or deny about the church under oath. I also want to know where they get off taking any other oaths.

Jesus said not to swear at all, but let your yes be yes and your no be no.  Why should any Christian -- Quaker, Catholic, etc. -- swear oaths?  

Agree, that once a religious figure has sworn an oath to protect his religion, his subsequent oaths are meaningless.

(Amazing, imho, that anyone  takes (or pretends to take) the John Jay study seriously.  Maybe the most offensive bit was lowering the age from 13 to 10 for children victimized by pedophiles.)

Yeah, that's not (what happened)(.) 

Hi, Grant,

I won't be reading the John Jay report again.  Sorry if I overstated its worthlessness.  I remember threads here about it, but I won't be reading them again, either.  

(Too hard on the old eyes to read the old threads, since the new formatting removed all the paragraphing and much of the punctuation.)  

Patrick J. Wall quoted SNAP:

(He's an expert, as I'm sure you know, on St. John's sordid history.  I get him confused with Thomas Wahl, another monk from St. John's, now in Japan, the brother-in-law of J. F. Powers.)

(Clicked reply too soon.)

Forgot to add that the first comment on the Patrick J. Wall page from a priest who was a "clergyvictim" is very interesting.  (I guess I wasn't the only one to think the John Jay report lowered the age from 13 to 10.)

The Dallas Charter has little to do with the safety of children and is mainly designed to support the continued political survival of the hierarchs.  Prime example of this is the much ballyhooed Zero-Tolerance policy - the Ratzinger-led CDF eviserated that one

I'm sure I'm at least as tired of this ping pong match as you are.  But look: you write this snippet I've pasted here as though it's true, when in fact its claim - that the CDF "eviscerated" zero tolerance from the Dallas Charter - manifestly is not true.  A quick perusal of the relevant documents illustrates this:

  • From the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Article 5: "The diocesan/eparchial bishop is to exercise his power of governance, within the parameters of the universal law of the Church, to ensure that any priest or deacon subject to his governance who has committed even one act of sexual abuse of a minor as described below (see note) shall not continue in ministry".  
  • From the Essential Norms for Diocesan/ Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons, Article 8: "When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants (SST, Art. 6; CIC, c. 1395 §2; CCEO, c. 1453 §1).

Removing someone after a single offense is the definition of zero tolerance. So what you  wrote isn't correct: zero tolerance is still in effect, and in fact, the CDF didn't "eviscerate" zero tolerance.  The CDF took the original Charter and Essential Norms, and revised them in order to bring them into compliance with canon law.  But zero tolerance provisions remain in place.  It's not just a guideline; it's particular law for dioceses in the US.  We, the People of God, should expect nothing less than zero tolerance for every instance of abuse.

So now, let's go back to the beginning.  The whole point of this thread - the original topic - is that there are a couple of priests in St. Paul - Minneapolis to whom zero tolerance wasn't applied when credible allegations were made; and in the case of one of those priests, because his bishop didn't have zero tolerance, the priest was put in charge of a parish where he subsequently abused children.  Had the USCCB's zero tolerance policies, which remain in effect and which I've quoted here, been prudently applied, those children would never have encountered that criminal priest.  

You, I and anyone reading this comment agree that the sequence of events is gut-wrenchingly tragic, and the Minn bishops who were complicit in this failure to uphold the particular law deserve all of the sh*t that is being directed at them; and we probably further agree that the universal church should have some legal mechanism to pursue formal canonical justice against those bishops and diocesan officials (in addition to whatever secular legal penalties they're facing).  I don't think there is any disagreement about any of that.

 All of us have an obligation to the truth.  Bishops and diocesan officials aren't exempt.  Truth-telling by them would be a huge step forward in turning off the drip-drip-drip of child abuse allegations.  But you and I aren't exempt from truth-telling, either.  The zero tolerance policy is true: it continues to exist and it's particular law for dioceses in the US.  It didn't prevent those priests from staying in ministry, nor those kids from being abused.  But let's point the finger where it should be pointed.  And that's not at the CDF or the USCCB in this instance.  In fact, the CDF and USCCB seem to have gotten it right in this instance.  Had their particular law been followed, a lot of tragic stuff would have been avoided.  It's two bishops in the Twin Cities and some diocesan officials who seem to have gotten it horribly wrong.


IN RE:  the data.

If there has been no improvement in the behavior of the bishops and clergy since the Dallas Charter, that means that things are as bad now as they were in the 90's and 80's as far as reporting and holding clergymen responsible is concerned.

So where are the figures that show that since Dallas there have been proporitonally as many reported cases and coverups?  Who are these priests and bishops, besides Finn and the others already mentioned?

a pledge that they will never ordain women or married men priests, and they will never deviate from church policy on contraceptives and abortion.  

This would not be very far from the priorities in colonial times. I am reading a first-hand account written by a priest who spent the first part of the 20th century in the Gabon jungle as a missionary. After a mission had been built among the Adouma people, the Adoumas were given control of trade activity on the river but abused it to such an extent that the missionaries gave up and moved out, leaving them on their own until, forty years later, they were approached again by Adoumas who asked for a catechist, which was given to them on condition that they would first build a house for the catechist and that once he arrived they would take care to feed him every day. Here is an excerpt.


The small construction had been built carefully and with the cooperation of almost the entire village, under the leadership of the village head who had first started the negotiations. Thus the missionary had to execute his end of the bargain: a very serious catechist was selected and placed there.


What happened then had almost never been seen before. One does not always see Africans assiduously coming, on time to listen to Catholic doctrine, with old men keeping order among the young, with old woman leading the young ones, and everyone attentively repeating the prayers and listening to the lessons. The popularity was such that the catechist had difficulty answering the needs, but he was given plenty of food. Then, emulation started: people came from nearby villages, and those who were too far started building their own constructions for chapels and put pressure on the fathers to be given more catechists.[…]


In spite of that enthusiasm, the missionaries stuck to the rules regulating the length of catechumenate. It was not merely a matter of knowing doctrine: there was also the matter of behavior. The catechumens had to first stop superstitious practices. Bad habits had to be reformed: drink less palm wine, stop scandalous behavior. Consider that those hundreds of adult pagans, whose numbers soon grew into the thousands, were approaching baptism with all sorts of cases of conscience that had to be dealt with for each of them. There were polygamous husbands who wondered what to do with their wives. There were husbands who were no longer living with their wife, wives who had be given away to pay for debts and who were now in other hands, young wives who were not quite sure which one was their true husband. "The entire moral theology will be spanned by those cases!", wrote Fr. Hée.

Even then and there, family issues were paramount!


Ann - exactly.  The sources I keep referencing suggest that the number of cases has been in decline.  (Take those sources for what they're worth.)   But that must be balanced with the understanding that most reports of abuse don't happen immediately; it can take years or decades before a victim comes forward.  So we don't have an accurate snapshot, yet, for abuse that may have taken place within the last 10-20 years.  That Australian lecture linked to by Crystal earlier in this comment thread has some very good discussion of these issues.

Who are these priests and bishops, besides Finn and the others already mentioned?

Ann, and JimP.:  We don't know. Their identities dribble out one at a time. Grant's original post noted that this was St. Paul-Mineapolis, of all places! Well, there, of all places!, a whistle-blower appeared and an NPR station decided to follow up. Is there a whistle blower in every diocese that needs one? And a news medium willing to take the abuse of offended Catholics while following up?

We don't really know, do we? And can we trust the statements of people who have sworn never to say anyting hurtful to the Church? Who can we trust?

FWIW, my reading of the text of the cardinals' oath is that the cardinal's highest obligations are to Jesus, the Gospel and the Church (which includes not just the pope and cardinals, but parishioners, victims - all of us).  Any time a bishop lies or equivocates, he has potentially harmed the church - has violated his oath.  I suppose not all cardinals would share my interpretation.  

At any rate, cardinals are still relatively few and far between.  I believe there are none in St. Paul and Minneapolis.


We don't know. Their identities dribble out one at a time.

It's even more dribbly than that - specific cases dribble out one at a time.  It's possible that Nienstedt and Myers and these other dribblees have handled most of their  cases as they were supposed to be handled.  We don't know.  But if that does happen to be the case, it would seem to be a powerful motivation to be transparent about it.



@ Jim Pauwels:  I get it that you NEED to continue with all the willful ignorance.  I get it that a corrupt and complicit hierarchy doesn’t FIT into your cosmological reality.  Go ahead:  Knock yourself out!  If that is what you need to make it through life, go for it.

At times like this my sainted sixth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Adelaide, would quote the Psalms:

They have mouths, but they do not speak; They have eyes, but they do not see; They have ears, but they do not hear, Nor is there any breath at all in their mouths …

The issue for you is that reality is a social construction where our individual perceptions and cognitions must be situated within a social context rendering a shared reality beyond the solely personal experience.

However for the record – even though I concede it will probably never convince you Pauwels:

  • The much ballyhooed Zero-Tolerance is a public relations gimmick cooked-up by political and media consultants all for public consumption. 
  • The Ratzinger-led CDF ordered edits in the text of the Dallas Charter that established that canon law – not zero-tolerance, not American law – was the preeminent controlling, operational, functional principle guiding bishops.
  • The Ratzinger-led CDF also effected changes in the draft of the Dallas Charter that essentially neutered lay-led review boards, and also shielded hierarchs and religious priests from the purview of the Dallas Charter.
  • Under both Ratzinger and then Levada at the CDF, a global strategy was focused under Vatican control, which has effectively truncated investigations into the abuse scandal attempting to limit the church’s exposure to accountability.
  • The continuing revelations of multiple priest predators, and their enablers in the hierarchy, in cultures and societies around the world are signal flags that the sexual abuse and exploitation of children is unabated.
  • The seeming failing rates of abuse and exploitation among Catholic priests are more an artifact of the progressive aging and mortality rates of Catholic priests than corporate policy changes by the Catholic Church.  [Criminologists have long determined that criminal behavior in men is inversely correlated with age and positively correlated with falling testosterone levels.]  In other words, as men age all men are less likely to engage in criminal behavior – this certainly applies to the rapidly aging cohort of Catholic priests. 
  • Priests’ sexual predation on children [regardless of gender and sexual orientation] is highly correlated with a nexus of opportunity and the expectation of impunity.  [In other words, the choice of victim for priests predators is more a crime of opportunity and being able to get away with it, and less attributable to the sexual orientation of the priest and/or their sexual deviancy, and the lack of inhibition from appropriate social boundaries.]

Actually Pauwels, I share your obligation and dedication to “Truth-telling.”  Reminds me that Sister Adelaide would often paraphrase scripture:  “I have come to bring you the Truth.  And the Truth will set you free.  But first, it will make you miserable.” 

Jim J - thanks, and peace to you.


Postscript on "What it means to tell the truth" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Communicating truthfully means more than factual accuracy…There is a way of speaking which is…entirely correct and unexceptionable, but which is, nevertheless, a lie…When an apparently correct statement contains some deliberate ambiguity, or deliberately omits the essential part of the truth…it does not express the real as it exists in God.” 

My quoting this for the umpteenth time is particularly appropriate in light of Grant's excellent analysis of "The Neinstedt Shuffle." The Shuffle is exactly what Neinstedt did; dancing around the real as it exists in God through omission and distortion. IOW, lying.

I saw Neinstedt's statement earlier on the abuse tracker  and knew it was clever drivel. I understand the work Grant had to put in to deconstruct the piece; the hours of sorting through misleading muck. I thank him again for this and prior efforts. 

Bottom line: Where are bishops who speak truthfully from the heart? 

Patrick Parkinson gave a lecture this week in Australia, noting:

"...the Church needs to find a way of throwing out its rotten apples, publicly rebuking or removing leaders from their positions if they have failed egregiously to do the right thing. It needs, in other words, to modernise and to create an authority structure with power to deal with the recalcitrant and the obstructive in its midst. I have no reason for confidence that this leadership will come from the Vatican or from the leaders of the worldwide religious orders, some of which are also based in Rome."

Perhaps the laity, also in the form of courts, legislatures and media, can further this process. Silence is not an option.

"  The whole point of this thread - the original topic - is that there are a couple of priests in St. Paul - Minneapolis to whom zero tolerance wasn't applied when credible allegations were made; and in the case of one of those priests, because his bishop didn't have zero tolerance, the priest was put in charge of a parish where he subsequently abused children.  Had the USCCB's zero tolerance policies, which remain in effect and which I've quoted here, been prudently applied, those children would never have encountered that criminal priest.  "  Quite --but the defense of the bishop is that the allegations did not specifically concern actual child abuse.

I forgot to reply to Fr. O'Leary's latest misinformed comment in this thread: owning child pornography is defined by civil and canon law as a form of sexual abuse. 

When was the last time you read deeply on this issue, Fr. O'Leary? You have a lot of opinions on an issue you obviously know so little about.