In a letter posted Friday evening on the website of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop Bernard Hebda sought to clarify to the faithful that unresolved abuse allegations against former Archbishop John Nienstedt mean he cannot practice any ministry in Minnesota.
Hebda also gave new details about a 2005 allegation against Nienstedt involving two minors at a church youth event.
Against the backdrop of growing concern among Twin Cities Catholics about accountability for bishops, Hebda said the archdiocese’s Ministerial Review Board recently urged him to inform the public that for now Nienstedt can have no role here.
Nienstedt recently surfaced in Madison, Wis., where he helped officiate at the funeral of Bishop Robert Morlino, according to the Catholic Spirit.
“I remain troubled by the failure to bring closure to the 2014 investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct with adult males leveled against my predecessor,” Hebda wrote. At that time, Nienstedt delegated that investigation to his senior auxiliary bishop and two law firms, and in 2015 the investigative materials were submitted to the nuncio — the papal ambassador to the United States — as well as to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. When Nienstedt resigned in June 2015, the Vatican suspended its investigation.
“Thus, the matter remains unresolved for the accusers, for Archbishop Nienstedt and for the public,” Hebda said. “I share the frustration that is felt by them, and believe this situation highlights the need for a better-defined process and independent mechanism to resolve allegations made against bishops.”
After Nienstedt resigned, a separate investigation unfolded about the 2005 incident in which Nienstedt, then bishop of the New Ulm diocese, was accused of inviting two unaccompanied minors to his hotel room in Germany, where the church’s World Youth Day event was underway. After inviting the minors “to get out of the rain and wet clothing … it is alleged that he then proceeded to undress in front of them and invited them to do the same,” Hebda wrote.
“Archbishop Nienstedt denies this ever happened,” Hebda continued. “My opinion is this allegation needs to be fully addressed before a definitive resolution of Archbishop Nienstedt’s suitability for ministry can be made.”
In an e-mailed response late Friday, Nienstedt said that “even though I am not currently practicing public ministry in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” his removal from ministry is “appropriate” under the archdiocese’s current protocols.
“I welcome an investigation into this allegation, as I have welcomed all impartial investigations into allegations made against me,” Nienstedt said in the e-mail. “At the same time, I do deny the veracity of this allegation. That being said, I don’t want to speak poorly of the men making these accusations … I welcome an impartial look at the facts and the opportunity to defend myself.”
In his letter, Hebda said the archdiocese was informed of the World Youth Day allegation in 2016 by Ramsey County. He said he has sent all information about that allegation from the county to the papal nuncio.
“I have been asked repeatedly whether there are any restrictions on Archbishop Nienstedt’s ministry,” Hebda wrote. “My answer has always been that although I do not know of any, I am the wrong person to ask: Bishops report to the Holy Father, not to each other. … I can, however, exercise some control over the types of public ministry permitted in this Archdiocese.”
Hebda’s letter reflects the urgency many American bishops have expressed over Vatican delays in addressing the abuse crisis. In November, U.S. bishops were blindsided by a last-minute Vatican instruction to delay voting on a package of corrective measures until next year.
Hebda also announced that he will create a new staff position to meet with survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and that those survivors are released from any confidentiality agreements they may have signed with the archdiocese before it declared bankruptcy in 2015.
He also reiterated his pledge to meet with any survivors, saying that he will leave open all Friday afternoons in February, March and April for that purpose.
“Many of you have reminded me that our Church needs to face today’s challenges with more direct action,” Hebda wrote. “Changes must be made that will prevent regression to old ways. I am taking additional steps in this Archdiocese to change the culture that fostered the clergy abuse crisis.”