Archbishop John Nienstedt has been accused of inappropriately touching a boy and has removed himself from public ministry while the matter is investigated, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced Tuesday.
The young man has alleged that Nienstedt touched his buttocks during a group photo session following a confirmation ceremony in 2009.
Nienstedt called the account “absolutely and entirely false.”
The incident was reported Monday afternoon to St. Paul police, which immediately began an investigation.
St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith declined to comment on the allegation against Nienstedt at a Tuesday afternoon news conference. He said the public can rest assured that his department has assigned adequate resources to investigate that case and other allegations of sexual abuse involving clergy members.
But the chief took exception to the archdiocese’s repeated assertions that it has been cooperating fully with police in those investigations. Smith said his investigators have been denied access to certain clergy members.
“We have, through written and verbal request, made clear our desire to speak to individuals connected with the archdiocese, and we’ve been told, ‘No,’ ” Smith said.
He said that the archdiocese’s former vicar general, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, who handled clergy sex abuse cases for the archdiocese starting in the 1980s, declined, through an attorney, to be interviewed by investigators.
According to a Dec. 4 letter from Smith to Nienstedt, investigators made repeated attempts to interview McDonough, including visiting St. Peter Claver Church on Nov. 19. McDonough is pastor at the St. Paul parish.
“Absent Father McDonough, who at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis would be suited to answer our questions regarding these investigations?” the police chief wrote.
As recently as 2012, McDonough infuriated St. Paul police with the way he and other church leaders handled a child’s explicit sexual abuse allegation against the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, who had been promoted by Nienstedt despite earlier reports of sexual misconduct.
Wehmeyer was fired by McDonough from his job as pastor of a St. Paul church in a manner that allowed Wehmeyer to hide evidence in the sex case, police Cmdr. Mary Nash complained earlier this fall. Wehmeyer now is in prison for child sexual abuse and possession of child pornography.
Meeting on Wednesday
The archdiocese said Tuesday it could not speak for McDonough, but that the archdiocese “greatly appreciates the comments by St. Paul Police Chief Smith.” The statement said the new vicar general, the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, will meet with police on Wednesday, along with an attorney for the church.
“We look forward to the meeting,” the statement said. “The archdiocese seeks to cooperate with the police and all civil authorities.”
Said police spokesman Howie Padilla: “We hope this will be ongoing as there are many questions still to be answered.”
Smith said he welcomes “complete transparency.” Interviews with clergy members are needed to build probable cause for search warrants, he said.
Nienstedt addressed the allegation against him in a letter Tuesday morning. “I do not know the individual involved: he has not been made known to me,” he wrote. “I have never once engaged in any inappropriate contact with a minor and I have tried to the very best of my ability to serve this archdiocese and the church faithfully.’ ”
Nienstedt said he learned of the incident “this past weekend.” After consulting the Vatican’s representatives in the United States, it was determined that the archbishop would step aside until the investigation has ended.
“I find it highly unlikely that at a public confirmation ceremony, an archbishop … would take that kind of a risk,” said Rev. Tom Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer who has been an expert witness for hundreds of clergy abuse victims. “It’s difficult to believe,” he said.
Tom Lyons, a staunch critic of Nienstedt’s handling of sex abuse charges in the archdiocese, said it was one more indication that change was needed at the top of the archdiocese.
“This is an appropriate time for him to go all the way and step aside,” said the longtime Catholic and St. Paul attorney.
Typical pose for photos
Nienstedt said he has a standard pose for confirmation photographs. He places one hand on his staff and the other on the right shoulder of the newly confirmed person or on the stole that hangs from his chest.
“I do that deliberately, and there are hundreds of photographs to verify that,” Nienstedt said in his statement.
A number of U.S. bishops have been accused of abusing a minor in the past two decades, Doyle said. In about a half-dozen cases, such as 2005 charges against retired Spokane, Wash., Bishop William Skylstad, the accusations were investigated and determined unfounded, he said.
About a dozen bishops were found to have abused, sometimes years earlier, he said.
Church rocked by allegations
The local archdiocese has been rocked by allegations of clergy sex abuse and church coverups this fall. Amid building public pressure following new allegations of misconduct involving several priests that had not previously been revealed, 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 released 14 names of accused priests as required by a court order.
Archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso said that Nienstedt did not know about the allegation until after he spoke Sunday at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, where several accused priests had been assigned.
At the time, Nienstedt apologized for clergy sex abuse and said he should have investigated allegations more thoroughly.
The archdiocese said the steps it has taken in response to the allegations “demonstrate and reaffirm the archdiocese’s commitment to disclosure.”
During the investigation Nienstedt will not say masses or preside at ceremonies, Accurso said. Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché will take his place at public appearances. A New Brighton native, Piché, 55, was ordained in 1984 and served at a number of area parishes before becoming auxiliary bishop in 2009. One of Piché’s earlier assignments was with Wehmeyer at St. Joseph’s in West St. Paul.