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.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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