By this author
Vatican reporter Sandro Magister, widely seen as skeptical of the Francis papacy, has published an Italian draft of the pope's encyclical on the environment, which is scheduled to be released Thursday morning.
This morning, ten days after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was criminally charged with child endangerment and five days after Pope Francis announced a new tribunal for bishops who mishandle cases of abusive priests, the Vatican announced the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt, along with one of his auxiliary bishops, Lee Piché. Prosecutors charged the archdiocese with failing to protect the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer, the now laicized priest who is serving a five-year sentence for molesting children and possessing child pornography. (The criminal complaint also named several other accused priests whose cases were mishandled by the archdiocese.) Nienstedt's replacement has not yet been named. In the meantime, Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda as apostolic administrator (not the Twin Cities' remaining auxiliary bishop, Andrew Cozzens)--an unusual move, given the fact that Hebda is already the coadjutor archbishop of Newark, where he lives.
Nienstedt has been buffeted by calls for his resignation ever since his former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, provided Minnesota Public Radio with troubling information about the archdiocese's responses to cases of accused priests. As recently as last July, Nienstedt pledged not to resign. "The resignations were both prudent and necessary," Haselberger told me. "The Holy See has acted wisely by appointing an apostolic administrator."
On Friday, a Minnesota county attorney filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, alleging that for years church leaders—including Archbishop John Nienstedt—failed to protect children from a priest who would eventually plead guilty to molesting children and possessing child pornography. Owing to its acts or omissions, according to prosecutors, the archdiocese endangered children by mishandling a series of warnings about Curtis Wehmeyer dating back to his seminary days. He applied to seminary in 1996 and was jailed in 2013. (Prosecutors also filed a civil petition alleging the same offenses.) “It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused [to his victims],” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi during a press conference, “but it is the archdiocese as well.”
In a statement released late Friday, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens apologized for the suffering of all victims of sexual abuse, and pledged to cooperate with civil authorities. Nienstedt did not make a public statement. But on Saturday, June 6, he sent a letter to Twin Cities priests commenting on the charges. “The events of the past twenty-four hours have been disturbing to me,” the archbishop wrote. While prosecutors “had not indicated their findings to us before noon this past Friday,” he continued, “my staff and I will continue to work with them closely and collaboratively to meet their concerns.” Nienstedt concluded: “As we celebrate the great feast of Corpus Christi, we acknowledge that the grace of the Holy Eucharist elevates us beyond our all too human nature so as to be united in the one Body of Christ.”
In late 2013, the archdiocese was plunged into scandal after Nienstedt’s former top canon lawyer went public with damning accounts of how the archdiocese had handled cases of accused priests—including Wehmeyer. In December of that year, Nienstedt himself was accused of groping an eighth-grader (he denies the allegation and has not been charged). Adding to the controversy, in July 2014 it came to light that Nienstedt was himself being investigated by an outside law firm—hired by the archdiocese—for multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Nienstedt denies any wrongdoing. Following a series of sexual-abuse lawsuits, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January. Amid calls for his resignation, Nienstedt has said that he will not step down.
The six gross misdemeanor charges—three for child endangerment and three for contributing to the delinquency of a minor (Wehmeyer gave his victims alcohol and marijuana)—were filed against the archdiocese as a corporation. A conviction would bring a small fine for the archdiocese, not jail time. At this time, there is not enough evidence to charge individual church officials, Ramsey County Attorney Choi said at Friday’s press conference. (Still, prosecutors name several diocesan leaders in the complaints, including Nienstedt, his predecessor Archbishop Harry Flynn [once seen as a leader on the issue of clerical abuse], his predecessor Archbishop John Roach; and several vicars general, including Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché (currently responsible for overseeing the ongoing investigation of Nienstedt’s alleged sexual misconduct), Fr. Kevin McDonough, and Fr. Peter Laird.) Even though no one has been charged as an individual, Choi explained, that doesn’t mean the prosecutors’ work is done. The investigation is ongoing. “In fact,” he continued, “the investigation right now is very robust.”
The inquiry that led to Friday’s charges began twenty months ago. Investigators interviewed more than fifty witnesses—some more than once. They obtained more than one hundred seventy thousand pages of documents from “numerous sources,” Choi said. It is not clear whether the charges will hold up in court, and it seems doubtful that the archdiocese will even allow the case to go to trial. The criminal complaint has been called virtually unprecedented. Its closest analogues are the cases of Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted of failing to report suspected abuse; and the archdiocese of Cincinnati, which was fined by a judge for failing to report abuse in the 1970s and ’80s. But even if Choi is unable to secure a conviction, he may get a settlement. The investigation has turned up a vast amount of evidence that calls into question past and current leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The facts that we have gathered cannot be ignored. They cannot be dismissed, and are frankly appalling,” Choi said Friday, “especially when viewed in their totality.”
Cardinal Pell's response to victims "almost sociopathic," says member of pope's sexual-abuse commission.
During the May 31 broadcast of Australia’s 60 Minutes, a member of Pope Francis’s sexual-abuse commission described Cardinal George Pell’s treatment of victims as “almost sociopathic.” The 60 Minutes segment focused on Pell’s response to abuse allegations while he ministered in Australia, including testimony alleging that the cardinal tried to buy a victim’s silence, and that he was involved in the decision to move the nation’s most notorious abuser priest, Gerald Ridsdale, between parishes—claims the cardinal denies. Pell, former archbishop of Sydney, was criticized for appearing with Ridsdale at his first trial in 1993 (Ridsdale was eventually convicted of more than one hundred counts of assault). The cardinal has a “catalogue of denials…a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness,” according to Peter Saunders, selected by Francis to serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Saunders explained that he based his judgments on conversations with Australian victims. The cardinal’s position as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy—the office created by Francis to oversee the Vatican’s finances—is “untenable,” Saunders said. “I would go as far to say,” he continued, “that I consider him to be quite a dangerous individual.”
Responses from Pell and from the Vatican spokesman came quickly. Before the program had even aired (after the network released promotional material), Pell issued statements calling Saunders’s comments “false” and “outrageous”—and suggested he might take legal action. (Saunders defended his remarks on June 1, saying they were “not slanderous.”) While acknowledging “the important work Mr. Saunders has done as a survivor of abuse to assist victims, including the establishment of a victims survivors group in the United Kingdom,” the cardinal suggested that Saunders had overstepped his role as a member of the pope’s sexual-abuse commission. The statutes of that body “make it clear that the Commission's role does not include commenting on individual cases,” according to Pell, “nor does the commission have the capacity to investigate individual cases.”
Fr. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See, made the same point in his June 1 statement. But he went further, stating that Pell’s responses to the Australian government’s investigation of child abuse have “always” been careful and thorough. The cardinal’s recent statements about 60 Minutes “must be considered reliable and worthy of respect and attention,” according to Lombardi. No doubt the cardinal’s statements about his role in the scandal deserve both respect and attention, but have they always been reliable?
The percentage of Americans who call themselves Christian has dropped significantly since 2007, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have experienced the largest losses (-3.4 percent and -3.1 percent, respectively), Evangelicals the smallest (-.9 percent, just over the margin of error). While the dip in Christian affiliation has occurred across all age cohorts, the younger you are, the more likely you are not to identify with any religious tradition. While non-Christian faiths saw modest bumps in affiliation (+.5 percent for Muslims, +.3 for Hindus), no group grew more than the "nones," who make up nearly 23 percent of the population--a gain of 6.7 percent since 2007. There are now more nones than Catholics.
Mainline Protestants have suffered the largest losses in absolute numbers--there are 5 million fewer today than there were in 2007. Like the Mainlines, Catholics are decreasing as a percentage of the population and in terms of raw numbers. Pew Research notes that Catholic losses may total no more than 1 million, accounting for margins of error. A number of studies over the past twenty-five years have come up with differing estimates of the size of the U.S. Catholic population over time. Some have found steadier numbers than Pew Research (until about 2010-2012). But one of those surveys did not interview as many young people as Pew did, and interviewed more Hispanics. The losses found by this Pew Research study--based on a sample size of 35,000--track closesly with the organization's monthly polls.
The decline among Christians comes at a time when they are becoming more ethnically diverse. Since 2007, Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals all saw their ethnic and racial minority populations grow by about 5-6 percent. Today 41 percent of Catholic Americans are members of racial and ethnic minorities.
William Pfaff, long-time contributor to and two-time editor at Commonweal, has died. He was eighty-six. The New York Times obituary will tell you the important facts of Bill's life. He wrote prodigously for over sixty years--first for Commonweal, then for publications with a wider readership: the New Yorker, the International Herald Tribune (work that was syndicated to two dozen newspapers), the New York Review of Books. He wrote his own books, eight of them, one of which was a finalist for the National Book Award (Barbarian Sentiments, 1989).
Bill was unswervingly skeptical of the projection of U.S. power, and had no qualms about criticizing American interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. For this, the Times expains, he was sometimes called anti-American. But he always considered himself a patriot. “He lashed out at America because he loved it," his wife Carolyn told the Times. "But he became sadder and sadder about the nation that was so great, yet was belittling itself. He wanted America to stay home and fix its own country.”
“He rejected the messianic illusions of successive American administrations,” said a longtime friend, John Rielly, president emeritus of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Although many American pundits consider him a liberal, he was in many respects a classic Christian conservative — one who was skeptical about liberal notions of inevitable progress and always aware of the limitations of human activity.”
Giving Bill an award in 2006, the Times reports, the American Academy of Diplomacy called him the "dean" of American columnists, lauding “his moral vision of the proper uses of power and limits on its abuse.”
In a one-sentence bulletin released this morning, the Vatican announced that Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012, has resigned. Pope Francis accepted Finn's resignation "in conformity with canon 401, paragraph 2"--the statute that covers bishops who cannot fulfill their duties because of poor health or "other grave reasons." News of the resignation follows months of speculation, which had intensified over the past week, that Pope Francis was poised to remove Finn. In September 2014, the National Catholic Reporter revealed that a Canadian bishop had been sent by the Holy See to Kansas City to investigate Finn. Just last November, Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston, president of the pope's new commission on child protection, told 60 Minutes that the Holy See had to "address urgently" the case of Robert Finn. Less than six months later, Pope Francis has done just that.
What might it mean?
1. Yes, Pope Francis is serious about accountability for bishops. Pope Francis's early comments on the sexual-abuse scandal were hardly encouraging. But before long he sent a message to the world's bishops asking them to get behind his new commission for the protection of minors. Over the past year, some members of that commission have suggested that they would walk if they didn't see accountability for bishops who enabled abusers. They had seen the pope move against the so-called Bishop of Bling for financial mismanagement. They knew that he had ousted Bishop Livieres in Paraguay, but the Holy See's statements about that decision curiously avoided acknowledging that it had anything to do with the fact that Livieres had promoted a priest long accused of sexual misconduct. More recently, two members of the pope's child-protection commission openly criticized his decision to appoint Chilean Bishop Juan Barros to a new diocese, despite allegations that he had covered up--and witnessed--acts of abuse committed by his mentor. Just yesterday, one of those commission members, Marie Collins, told Crux that the pope was considering a proposal on bishop accountability. She even name-checked Finn: "I cannot understand how Bishop Finn is still in position, when anyone else with a conviction that he has could not run a Sunday school in a parish." That won't be a problem anymore.
Cardinal Francis George, who served as archbishop of Chicago for nearly two decades before retiring in November, died this morning after a years-long struggle with cancer. He was seventy-eight. Read the Chicago Tribune obituary here. The archdiocese's memorial page here. Live coverage here. Archbishop Blase Cupich delivered the following remarks this afternoon:
A man of peace, tenacity and courage has been called home to the Lord.
Our beloved Cardinal George passed away today at 10:45 a.m. at the
Cardinal George’s life’s journey began and ended in Chicago. He was
a man of great courage who overcame many obstacles to become a priest.
When he joined the priesthood he did not seek a comfortable position,
instead he joined a missionary order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate,
and served the people of God in challenging circumstances – in Africa,
Asia and all around the world.
A proud Chicagoan, he became a leader of his order and again traveled
far from home, not letting his physical limitations moderate his zeal
for bringing the promise of Christ’s love where it was needed most.
When he was ordained a bishop, he served faithfully, first in Yakima,
where he learned Spanish to be closer to his people. He then served in
Portland, where he asked the people to continue to teach him how to be a
good bishop. In return, he promised to help them become good
Cardinal George was a respected leader among the bishops of the United
States. When, for example, the church struggled with the grave sin of
clerical sexual abuse, he stood strong among his fellow bishops and
insisted that zero tolerance was the only course consistent with our
He served the Church universal as a Cardinal and offered his counsel
and support to three Popes and their collaborators in the Roman
congregations. In this way, he contributed to the governance of the
Here in Chicago, the Cardinal visited every corner of the Archdiocese,
talking with the faithful and bringing kindness to every interaction. He
pursued an overfull schedule-- always choosing the church over his own
comfort and the people over his own needs. Most recently, we saw his
bravery first hand as he faced the increasing challenges brought about
Let us heed his example and be a little more brave, a little more
steadfast and a lot more loving. This is the surest way to honor his
life and celebrate his return to the presence of God.
As we celebrate in these Easter days our new life in the Risen Lord,
join me in offering comfort to Cardinal George’s family, especially
his sister, Margaret, by assuring them of our prayers, thanking God for
his life and years of dedication to the Archdiocese of Chicago. Let us
pray that God will bring this good and faithful servant into the
fullness of the kingdom.
May Cardinal George rest in peace.
I'll update this post throughout the afternoon.