Under fire, Archbishop Nienstedt scrambles to respond

Archbishop John Nienstedt kept a relatively low profile on clergy sexual abuse until last week, when allegations of a pornography coverup put local church leadership in the spotlight.

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Archbishop John Nienstedt, of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Archbishop John Nienstedt kept a relatively low profile on clergy sexual abuse until last week. Now he finds himself overseeing an archdiocese scrambling to react to charges of a pornography coverup inside his chancery.

Nienstedt’s top deputy resigned abruptly Thursday in response to an allegation that he covered up evidence of child pornography on a computer owned by a Hugo priest.

The accusation came from attorney Jennifer Haselberger, a former high-ranking lay official within the archdiocese. And it followed her earlier accusation that the archdiocese overlooked for nearly a decade the sexual compulsions of another priest — Curtis Wehmeyer of St. Paul — and did not warn parishioners. Wehmeyer is now in prison, convicted of sexually abusing two boys.

Haselberger declined requests for comment last week, but on Saturday she issued a blunt challenge to Nienstedt.

She said in a statement that she resigned as chancellor for canonical affairs in April because church leaders’ refusal to act on her allegations made it “impossible for me to continue in that position given my personal ethics, religious convictions and sense of integrity.’’

Haselberger called for Nienstedt to order a comprehensive external review of the clergy and that he make public the names of all those who have engaged in acts of sexual misconduct or could reasonably be assumed to pose a threat to children.

“Until this occurs, I do not believe that it can be said that the Archdiocese is honoring its promise to protect,’’ Haselberger concluded.

Nienstedt’s office issued an advisory to parish priests later Saturday, asking them to tell the faithful at Sunday mass that he is appointing the Rev. Reginald Whitt of the University of St. Thomas law school to oversee the diocese’s handling of clergy misconduct. Whitt will also appoint an independent lay task force to review all issues related to clergy misconduct and recommend new actions or policies. The task force’s findings will be made public, the archdiocese said.

New scrutiny could also come from civil authorities. Ramsey and Washington counties announced Friday they would open new investigations if the evidence warrants action.

Back in unwelcome spotlight

The events are a blow to an archdiocese that has weathered past accusations of sexual assault by some of its priests and tried to position itself as a national leader in the handling of such allegations.

Nienstedt felt compelled to issue a public apology in recent weeks in which he blamed himself for the church’s ineffectual handling of the Wehmeyer case.

“I have reflected on this at great length, and have questioned my own judgment in dealing with the situation,’’ Nienstedt wrote about Wehmeyer. “I should have handled this matter more aggressively and am sorry that I did not.’’

Rather than putting the sex abuse issue back to rest, however, Nienstedt’s statement has turned into a prelude to the latest allegation, which places a coverup nearly at his doorstep.

“These are very significant charges,’’ said Don Briel, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

“The questions are, how did this occur?” Briel said. “Who was responsible? This was larger than the process and procedures [to halt sexual misconduct] were able to address.’’

In a statement Friday, the archdiocese stressed that it is willing to take new steps to stamp out doubts about its integrity.

“Our record is not perfect, but we have made great progress, and we are determined to do whatever is necessary to eliminate this problem,’’ the archdiocese said.

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