Ex-vicar general advised Archbishop Nienstedt to resign

Suggestion by vicar general who later quit was revealed in deposition for abuse suit.

Archbishop John Nienstedt should consider resigning in light of the clergy sex abuse scandal, the former vicar general for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis suggested last fall.

The suggestion was one of several ideas that the Rev. Peter Laird said he shared with the archbishop, according to a deposition of Laird made public Wednesday. Laird said he suggested on two occasions that Nienstedt resign.

“I think leaders have a responsibility to be accountable for decisions whenever they take place in an organization and — and to signal trust … and that the archdiocese doesn’t have anything to hide,” Laird said in the May 12 deposition.

Laird, then the local Catholic Church’s point person on clergy abuse, resigned not long after his meetings with the archbishop last fall.

Nienstedt did not respond to the suggestion, Laird said, nor to his other suggestions that the archdiocese allow an outside review of its priests’ files and create an archdiocesan-community task force to review the work.

The archbishop was “in listening mode,” Laird said, adding that Nienstedt did not take any notes or exhibit any reaction.

Laird’s move was highly unusual, said Mike Finnegan, an attorney for an alleged abuse victim whose lawsuit compelled the deposition.

“I’ve never heard of a top archdiocese official asking the archbishop to resign,” Finnegan said “It shows the gravity of the situation.”

Laird’s deposition joins one by Nienstedt and another former vicar general, the Rev. Kevin McDonough, that have been made public. They come in response to a lawsuit filed in 2013 on behalf of a man who claimed he had been abused decades earlier by the Rev. Thomas Adamson, who later was removed from ministry. It contends that church officials in the Twin Cities and Winona put children and others at risk of abuse by failing to disclose information about priests accused of abuse.

The John Doe 1 case has been moving through Ramsey County District Court, resulting in unprecedented disclosure of how the archdiocese has handled reports of priests who have sexually abused minors.

The archdiocese said it would not comment on Laird’s deposition because it is part of litigation.

Laird’s deposition challenged Nienstedt’s account of the most serious abuse on his watch, the case of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a former pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul and who was criminally charged in 2012 with abusing two boys in his camper outside the church.

Nienstedt had testified that he had no information about charges against Wehmeyer until the day of his arrest. But Laird said he told Nienstedt about the accusations twice as the situation unfolded.

‘A defining moment’

Laird’s deposition describes a church official grappling with how to publicly address what he considered a historic juncture for the church. Should the archdiocese respond as a “corporate person” or as an individual leader? Laird said he believed the best approach was by “a direct response from the leader.”

“It had become clear and apparent to me that this was going to be — how the archdiocese responded to this situation — was going to be a defining moment for the archdiocese,” he said.

“And not because there had never been an effort to do anything criminal … in fact, I think that a lot of good work had been done over the last three years.”

Laird resigned abruptly in October, the same day allegations emerged in a court hearing that church officials knew a priest had been in possession of pornography but continued to assign him to parish duties that brought him into contact with children.

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