Archbishop Nienstedt under investigation. (UPDATED)
Grant Gallicho July 1, 2014 - 1:16pm
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.