A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Nienstedt's apologia tour.

Two days before the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced that it had received an allegation of sexual misconduct against Archbishop John Nienstedt, he visited a parish to apologize for the way he responded to accusations of sexual abuse by priests.

When I arrived here seven years ago, one of the first things I was told was that this whole issue of clerical sex abuse had been taken care of and I didn’t have to worry about it. Unfortunately I believed that. And so my biggest apology to say I overlooked this. I should have investigated it a lot more than I did. [When the story broke] at the end of September, I was as surprised as anyone else.

Really? Because in 2009 Nienstedt's former top canon lawer, Jennifer Haselberger, warned him not to promote a priest with a history of sexual misconduct. Nienstedt made him a pastor (the priest was already administrator of the parish, thanks to the previous archbishop's bad judgment). The priest went on to abuse children in the parish. Haselberger provided Nienstedt with a golden opportunity to "investigate it more." Why wasn't he more alarmed? Where was his sense of urgency? Calmed by the assurance that in the Twin Cities "this whole issue of clerical sex abuse had been taken care of"?

And just last year Haselberger informed Nienstedt about another time bomb--this one was sitting in the chancery basement: a report indicating that "borderline illegal" pornographic images had been found on a priest's computer. Nienstedt did not report it to the police (in Minnesota, priests are mandated reporters). Haselberger did, just before she resigned.

Nienstedt was so troubled by the case that he considered contacting Rome for advice. In a detailed unsent letter to the Vatican, he acknowledged that this priest had possessed "borderline illegal" photographs of young people. He explained that he and the archdiocese could be subject to criminal prosecution for possessing such images (some were kept in the priest's long-buried personnel file). Nienstedt even expressed his "hesitation to assign [the priest] to any form of parochial ministry, given my doubts regarding his fitness for ministry and the potential harm and scandal that could ensue." That letter is dated May 29, 2012. But the archbishop wants Twin Cities Catholics to believe he was surprised when all this made headlines last September? Does he think they don't read the news?

But even if some buy the line that Nienstedt asked about that whole sexual-abuse-crisis thing upon arriving in St. Paul in 2007 and was told everything was hunky-dory, do they find it comforting? Pope Benedict XVI appointed him coadjutor just a few months before the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to its historic $660 million abuse settlment. And the year before Nienstedt moved to St. Paul, news broke that his brother bishop up the road in Chicago refused the advice of his abuse review board and allowed an accused priest to remain in ministry--a man who is now doing time for molesting children (for George this apparently raises deep theological questions).

That was the context of Nienstedt's query. The Catholic Church in the United States had not gotten over the scandal. Neither had most bishops. But he was satisfied when he was told that he need not worry about the local implications of the greatest crisis ever to befall the Catholic Church in the United States. All taken care of. Rest easy, Minnesota.

In that statement to the media last week, Nienstedt said that he is committed to restoring the confidence of his people, "who have lost confidence in us." As evidence of that effort, he mentioned his creation of an independent task force in order "to get the facts." He continued:

What went wrong? We have policies and practices in place. Obviously they weren't followed uniformly. I want to know what the facts are. I think you want to know what the facts are. And our people want to know what the facts are.

It's good that Archbishop Nienstedt has appointed an "independent" body to find these facts, because he hasn't shown much interest in sharing them with the public. (Indeed, when the archdiocese finally released the names of its "credibly accused" priests--after months of filibustering--it was missing three names.)

When Nienstedt finally consented to respond to Minnesota Public Radio's queries about the cases I mentioned above, he wasn't exactly forthcoming. When it came to the priest whose computer contained thousands of troubling photos, Nienstedt claimed the analysis of the hard drive "did not find evidence of possession of child pornography." He didn't mention that the same report warned that the images were "borderline illegal," or that he had composed a worried letter to the Vatican quoting that report.

Then Nienstedt claimed that police examined "the same material from the hard drive that was analyzed in 2004 and came to the same conclusion"--no child porn. In fact, a diocesan lawyer refused to give the police the report on the hard drive, agreeing to turn over just a few discs that supposedly contained the contents of the hard drive. "Whether these discs given to me were the actual discs or copies of those discs after first asking for them, I do not know," the investigating officer wrote in his report.

If the archbishop was committed to getting the facts out, he might have let MPR interview him in person. But they had to submit their questions in writing. No follow-ups allowed. His appearance before the media last week was also carefully controlled. Note the very beginning of the video. "Again, no questions," announces what looks to be Jim Accurso, the archbishop's PR manager.

And you can understand why. The facts of Nienstedt's role in these two cases have been known for months. Rather than come clean about his decision-making process, instead of telling the people whose trust he says he wants to restore why he decided to promote a troubled priest to pastor, a man who eventually molested the children of a parish employee, or why he didn't call the police after he was informed that a forensic examination of a priest's computer turned up "borderline illegal" photos, he  changed the subject. He attempted to attach himself to the surprise local Catholics felt when they read September's disturbing news accounts. He fired a vicar general.

But he has not provided a straightforward account of his role in these scandals. Apparently he's leaving that to the "independent" task force. Who knows when they will complete their work, or how comprehensive it will be? But if the archbishop believes he can outrun the facts of the crisis he helped to create, he's in for a genuine surprise. Facts are funny that way. They almost always catch up.



Commenting Guidelines

It is pretty hard to take American psychiatrists seriously when they rewrite their opinions in response to pressure from right wing organizations:

John Prior, you say "university students are generlally adults, whom the law allows to look after themselves" -- but in the case of "borderline illegal" matter, the law does not consider the age of the person to whom it is shown. One McFaul, here, said that "Clapham Junction", viewed late at night on Channel 4, by adults, should be treated as borderline illegal and as a topic for mandatory reporting of the said adults. Imagine a US professor showing it to his or her class -- it would only take one student to have him or her investigated by the police. The same is true of someone who teaches Andre Gide's L'immoraliste, for example. Can you clarify why you think it would be alright to teach Theognis and Gide?

I wonder will John Prior answer my question, or just indulge in more ad hominem name calling such as "extremist"! There is nothing extreme about my views on any of this, nor are they written in stone. I am quite open to rational argument.

So the answer, J. O'Leary, is more rain. I thought it would be.

Achilles and Patroclus? I was going to ask which book of the Iliad has the lurid homoerotic scenes that might make some students "uncomfortable," but then I saw this perfect piece of fatuity:

Greek poetry is largely about "lovers of pretty boys" -- in short, it is "borderline illegal" and no professor who dares to teach it can consider himself or herself immune from possible persecution.

And that is enough for me. Bye.

Fatuity? No, fact -- you did not read the link and you did not answer my question. Would you ban Greek lyric because of its pervasive pederastic content, and if not why not?

The Iliad? In antiquity the pederastic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was intensively discussed; no professor could avoid dealing with it, because the naughty students would have found the details on Wikipedia. One scene concerns Achilles, Patroclus and a woman sleeping together, and the issue of whether Achilles was in the middle comes up. Patroclus was the eroumenos, Achilles a minor.

Achilles was 15 when he began fighting in the Trojan war. The literature on their relationship is pretty spicy.

It seems to me you are logically bound to consider it borderline illegal and to denounce to the cops any professor who purveys such filth to pure American youth!

Or do you consider the Greek lyrics I quoted harmless and innocent? 

And what about Gide? Surely you do not think his book is harmless?

This post was about, among other things, a priest possessing possibly illegal pornographic images. Of real people. Not literary figures. 

At last an answer from Grant: borderline illegal concerns only real images of real people not literary images of fictional people.

But this distinction does not work at all.

First, it does not cover the film industry in which the actors seem to be minors; I refer again to "Clapham Junction" which has a scene of a 14 year old buggering a man and later a scene of full frontal nudity of the boy. I refer again to Tagami-kun, which has many scenes of boys in bed (one of a boy being molested by his brother).

Second, novels such as The Immoralist did concern real people, the very young North African boys that Gide abused; the same boys recur in Gide's diaries.

Third, pornography is not usually defined as concerning only real images of real people. Maybe US law has some such restriction of the meaning of pornography; on this I would like some clarification.

Fourth, apart from formal censorship there is a much wider informal censorship which is definitely affecting what can be taught even at university level. This has always been the case to some extent, but the current anxiety about children means that a vast tract of literature touching thereon has become unteachable, at the very moment when that literature has so much to teach us.

List away, Fr. O'Leary: You remain off

topic. Engage the post or get lost.

Oops, Takumi-kun, not Tagami-kun.


I don't myself believe that any of the material quoted is pornographic. But I do not see what it to prevent a zealot from seeing it as borderline illegal, or what is to prevent owners or teachers of such material being molested by the zealots. In my childhood we had terrific censorship and possibly this also created the silence and shame that have come to light in the examination of magdalene laundries and child abuse. Be careful, Grant, of subscribing to zealotry.