Archbishop John Nienstedt said he was not aware that known child sex abusers were working at the archdiocese during his tenure, nor did he track exactly which priests were being monitored, according to testimony released Tuesday.
Nienstedt’s extraordinary deposition, ordered by a judge and the first of its kind by a serving archbishop in Minnesota, was taken April 2 as part of a clergy sex abuse lawsuit. The claim is one of dozens brought against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis since a change in state law last year opened a wider window for pursuing child sex abuse claims.
Nienstedt said that when he became archbishop in 2008 he was briefed about clergy abuse by key archdiocese officials. He testified he didn’t remember the names of any abusive priests mentioned, how many were being monitored or the names of all the archdiocese officials present.
Nienstedt also said he didn’t request the list of “credibly accused” priests that all dioceses are required to maintain. Nor, he recalled, did he press for parishes to be told about the presence of clergy members who were being monitored because of previous child sexual misconduct reports.
“I believe that we felt that we could monitor the situation without making a total disclosure to the people,” testified Nienstedt, adding that he no longer feels that way.
“I think over my tenure as being archbishop, I have had new insights into how we should proceed with these — these situations,” he said.
The testimony was released at a news conference in the offices of attorney Jeff Anderson, whose St. Paul firm has led the pursuit of abuse cases against the archdiocese. Anderson has accused Catholic Church leaders of refusing to own up to past abuses, and he charged Tuesday that Nienstedt’s sworn statements showed a pattern of “denial and deceit.’’
One of Anderson’s clients, identified as “John Doe 1,” claims he was abused in the 1970s by the Rev. Thomas Adamson at a St. Paul Park church — even after the priest’s sexual misconduct was known to the church.
‘The only mistakes’
During four hours of questioning, Nienstedt said he believed he had made few mistakes in his oversight of child sexual abuse allegations.
“The only mistakes that I know for sure I made was not removing the faculties from Father [Kenneth] LaVan, but I didn’t know that that was happening at the time,” Nienstedt testified. “Once I learned it, I — I acted.”
LaVan was among a half-dozen priests mentioned in the transcript as either in ministry or doing consulting or related work for the archdiocese during Nienstedt’s tenure. In most cases, Nienstedt said he had only recently become aware of their history of abuse.
Nienstedt often testified during the deposition that he could not remember details about child sexual abusers or about conversations with local church officials about abuse cases.
Notes were not taken at some of these meetings, he acknowledged, because he had been advised against it.
Anderson said Nienstedt continued to assure parishioners that children’s safety was a top priority, but he did not remove all offenders from archdiocese work, which ranged from serving in the ministry to consulting work.
The deposition shows that abuse is not just a problem of the past, Anderson said.
“The archbishop and his predecessors have promised zero tolerance,” Anderson said. “But there has been ongoing tolerance” of sexual predators in the archdiocese, he said.
The archdiocese also released the full transcript of the deposition Tuesday morning and said it would have no comment.
During the deposition, Anderson asked the archbishop if he had taken the initiative on any of the cases.
“Have you ever said, ‘I want to review the file of Father X,’ ” and have that file produced to you in its entirety so you could make a fully informed decision about what to do or not to do?” asked Anderson.
Replied Nienstedt: “I don’t recall that I have.”
Anderson pushed Nienstedt on whether the archdiocese voluntarily turned over church files on sex abuse allegations against a priest to police. Nienstedt said the church provided “anything [police have] asked for,” but that he didn’t know if the chancery had volunteered the information.
“So it is your position and practice that you don’t turn it over unless they ask?” Anderson said.
“That is correct,” Nienstedt said, later adding that the church sometimes volunteers abuse allegations to police.
What is pornography?
The video testimony shows Nienstedt testifying that he let others decide whether an action constitutes abuse.
Nienstedt, for example, viewed samples of the pornography on the computer of the Rev. Jonathan Shelley. He said he couldn’t tell whether the young men in the video were adolescents or older. He did not report it to police.
Anderson asked the archbishop if he was a mandated reporter, meaning someone required by law to report to police any suspicion of child abuse.
The archbishop said yes, and he mentioned that the archdiocese has hired a firm, Kinsale Management Co., to review its clergy abuse files.
“Why not just privately turn the files over of those priests to law enforcement to let the professionals review it instead of trying to do this yourself?” Anderson asked.
At another point, Nienstedt said he was made aware that Shelley had an 18-year-old man living in the rectory of St. John the Baptist Church in 2009, and that whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger wrote in a memo that there was “a great risk in reassigning Father Shelley.”
Nienstedt testified that he received the memo but kept Shelley in ministry in Hugo for six months afterward.
“What did you do about it?” Anderson asked regarding the information in the memo.
“I can’t remember what I did about it,” Nienstedt said.
The Washington County attorney’s office declined to prosecute that case, saying the images on the computer didn’t fit the legal definition of child pornography.
Anderson said he had turned over to police the deposition and about 20,000 pages of church documents related to how the archdiocese has handled child sex abuse cases. He expects to seek new depositions from Nienstedt and the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the archdiocese’s point person for years on clergy abuse allegations.
St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla said no new cases have been opened as a result of the deposition or the documents. Police have 10 ongoing investigations of alleged clergy criminal sexual conduct, he said.