Report: Archbishop Nienstedt lawyers up. (UPDATED)

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has retained the services of a high-profile criminal defense attorney, Peter Wold, as part of its nearly year-long investigation of Archbishop John Nienstedt, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. News of the hire comes weeks after the archdiocese announced a 20-percent budget reduction, which will include cuts to lay staff, as pending sexual-abuse litigation threatens to plunge the Twin Cities diocese into bankruptcy.

In early July, I reported that the archdiocese had hired the law firm Greene Espel to look into multiple claims that Nienstedt had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Nienstedt denied the allegations, and has said he will not resign. Greene Espel's report was completed by late July, but auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché, who has been overseeing the investigation, said at the time that the archdiocese needed more time "to digest the information and any other information we receive." Apparently that means re-interviewing some of the people who filed affidavits as part of Greene Espel's investigation. And, as the Star-Tribune reports, at least one of those people is not too happy about it. His name is Joel Cycenas, former priest of the Twin Cities diocese--and former friend of Nienstedt.

“I met with him [Wold] and they are trying to discredit my own affidavit,” Cycenas told the Star-Tribune. "I don't get it." (Cycenas has not replied to requests for comment.) Wold disputes that characterization. “I wasn’t challenging what [the witness] said to Greene Espel,” Wold told WCCO-TV. “I was trying to get more information." What's more, Wold said he was hired by Bishop Piché. [This paragraph has been updated with information from the WCCO report.]

One of the reasons the archdiocese took the allegations against Nienstedt so seriously, according to my sources, is that they first came from someone who had been close to him. The Star-Tribune reports that last summer Nienstedt had this to say about his friendship with Cycenas: “We were very good friends at one point. We met at World Youth Day in Toronto [in 2002].... We went to the State Fair together. Oftentimes I would stay at his rectory at Holy Spirit when I was coming up [from the New Ulm Diocese] to fly out the next morning.” The end of their friendship coincided with Cycenas's decision to leave the priesthood in 2009.

This news raises obvious questions. What is the point of hiring a criminal defense attorney to re-interview people who already filed sworn statements in the Greene Espel investigation? If Cycenas believes Wold is attempting to undermine his sworn statement, what about the other people who filed affidavits with Greene Espel? Is the archdiocese's insurance paying Wold's fees? Or is that coming out of the budget the archdiocese just cut by $5 million--for reasons partly related to the sexual misconduct of its priests and the failure to handle them properly? What is the timeline of Wold's investigation? Will the archdiocese release the Greene Espel report unedited, and if so, when--and to whom? (I've put some of these questions to the archdiocese before and have not received much of an answer. I've contacted the archdiocese again for comment, and will update this post if I receive a substantive reply.)

Serious allegations must be investigated seriously. That takes time. But the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis learned of the allegations against Nienstedt at the end of 2013. It's nearly 2015. Every day the archdiocese delays releasing the results of the Greene Espel report--even if only to the apostolic nuncio, which Piche promised to do--it weakens the credibility of its own leaders, who have promised time and again to foster "a culture of transparency."

Update: After I published this post, I received the following statement from Bishop Piché: 

As we had mentioned earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis received claims regarding alleged misbehavior involving Archbishop John Nienstedt. The claims did not involve anything criminal or with minors. The Archbishop asked me to look into these claims and I retained Greene Espel to help conduct  an investigation. I received Greene Espel’s information in July. However, this matter involves more than just their role. I have since retained attorney Peter Wold to help with some remaining details in the same investigation. It would be a disservice to those involved to discuss any more of the specifics of the investigation while it is ongoing.

This raises another obvious question: Did Archbishop Nienstedt approve the decision to hire Wold? I asked the archdiocese several times, and was referred to this sentence of Piché's statement: "I have since retained attorney Peter Wold to help with some remaining details in the same investigation." That doesn't answer the question. I've never heard of an auxiliary bishop hiring--on his own--a lawyer to look into the actions of his archbishop. Nor do I know what it means for an attorney who is being paid by a diocese to represent the interests of an auxiliary bishop rather than those of the ordinary. After all, it's the archbishop who has the authority to make such a decision. Perhaps the archdiocese wants to emphasize the idea that Wold is not acting on behalf of Nienstedt, and in practice that may be the case. But there is one final authority in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. His name is John Nienstedt.

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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