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.

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

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.