In unusual comments to parishioners and reporters Sunday, Archbishop John Nienstedt apologized for not responding more energetically to allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Nienstedt delivered the homily at both morning masses at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, and in between masses made his first public comments on the recent wave of allegations that have roiled the local church hierarchy and helped reveal the names of 32 priests believed to have abused children.
“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,” he told reporters. “Unfortunately I believed that. … And so my biggest apology today is to say I overlooked this. I should have investigated it a lot more than I did. When the story started to break at the end of September, I was as surprised as anyone else.”
The apologies, though, weren’t nearly enough for some critics of Nienstedt’s leadership of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“That’s pretty sad,” the Rev. Mike Tegeder, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Minneapolis, said Sunday when told of Nienstedt’s words. “The fact that he says he just accepted what he was told seems to be a question of his leadership. Obviously that’s not an excuse. He had the responsibility to really search that out.”
Nienstedt had agreed last week to preside at the Sunday masses and the text of his homily had been circulated online by Saturday.
In it, he acknowledged the distress many local Catholics have expressed at the abuse allegations, saying, “I am here to apologize for the indignation that you justifiably feel. You deserve better.”
Some parishioners arriving for the first mass Sunday said they weren’t aware Nienstedt would be speaking. Others said they were there specifically to hear him.
One woman, who declined to give her name as she hurried through the cold to get inside the church, said, “Forgiveness is good [but] accountability is at the top of the list right now.”
A man, who also declined to give his name, said after the mass, “I’m a struggling Catholic right now.”
The Rev. Bob Schwartz, head pastor of Our Lady of Grace, introduced Nienstedt to the standing-room-only crowd at the 9:30 mass in the light and airy sanctuary. Schwartz said he had “strongly suggested” that the archbishop come to the church to “hear our voices … and to feel our pain.”
Schwartz said Pope Francis had said that a good shepherd smells like his sheep. “I trust the archbishop comes here to smell more like us,” the pastor said.
He urged parishioners to share their thoughts and “speak your mind” with Nienstedt after the service.
Many did, although reporters weren’t close enough to hear the exchanges.
Shortly before the 11:30 a.m. mass, Nienstedt met with reporters and TV crews in the church’s small library. Although he wouldn’t take questions, he did give a brief statement:
The meeting was the first time in months that Nienstedt has personally talked to reporters; most often he has addressed the public through written statements.
He reiterated that he and his “team” have dedicated themselves to four goals: providing a safe environment for everyone in the church, particularly children and vulnerable adults; reaching out to those who have been victimized to help them heal; restoring peoples’ confidence in the church and its leaders, and supporting “the 97 percent of our priests who are honest, noble, hardworking and selfless individuals.”
Amid building public pressure following new allegations of misconduct involving several priests that had not previously been revealed, however, the archdiocese earlier this month published a list of 32 priests who have been accused of sexually abusing minors. On Monday, the Diocese of Winona will release at least 13 names of accused priests.
“The negative news reports about past incidents of clerical sexual abuse in this local church have rightly been met with shame, embarrassment and outrage that such heinous acts could be perpetrated by men who had taken priestly vows as well as bishops who failed to remove them from ministry,” Nienstedt said in his homily.
Nienstedt also told parishioners that a majority of the allegations against the priests named a week ago happened in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Again, that is not to excuse those actions or diminish the harm done to their victims,” Nienstedt wrote. “But it does indicate that progress is being made in reducing the incidence of such terrible misconduct. There is reason, even now, to be hopeful.”