One was a gregarious Irishman who focused his ministry on social justice, racism and poverty. The other was a stern, hierarchical leader bent on returning orthodoxy to the church and blocking same-sex marriage.
Archbishops Harry Flynn and John Nienstedt couldn’t be further apart in beliefs and style, but now they are inexorably linked in the sex scandals and criminal charges that have rocked the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Nienstedt has suffered the spectacular public fall after resigning on Monday, and many are happy to see him go. But charges filed by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi suggest that many of the bungled cases of priests accused or convicted of child abuse began under Flynn and his right-hand man at the time, vicar general Kevin McDonough.
Flynn is retired and has kept a low public profile, refusing interviews. McDonough remains pastor at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in St. Paul, which also runs a school. Others who have been complicit in a failure to protect children and/or a coverup, serve on nonprofit boards and generally go on with their public lives.
But that does not mean their legacies will not also be seriously tainted.
Even though Nienstedt is gone, the situation still confuses and disturbs Eric Schubert, a Gen-X Catholic who has written on the need for reform.
“When I read the documents uncovered by [Minnesota Public Radio] and the criminal charges, I see popular priests, a retired archbishop, former vicar generals, who are esteemed by many and have done good things,” said Schubert. “In fact, some still hold leadership positions in the community and work with children, but they severely dropped the ball. I ask, why? And then I realize the underlying problem still exists even with the departure of Bishop Nienstedt. Until the father-knows-best culture of clericalism is rooted out in the archdiocese, more hurt will occur.”
Charles Reid, a professor in canon law at the University of St. Thomas, said Flynn’s popular image has taken a direct hit.
“His reputation was very strong. He’s a man who was deeply respected nationally, a paragon of leadership,” said Reid. “He is a friendly man, warm man, everything you’d want in a bishop.
“That’s changed,” said Reid. “Now, we see a side of him that’s disturbing.”
Flynn’s personality and charm stood in stark contrast to Nienstedt’s demeanor, Reid said, and probably made him more immune to the harsh criticisms.
“Part of it is that it’s been eight years since [Flynn] retired,” said Reid.
But the charges by Choi strongly implicate Flynn in the church’s inability, or refusal, to stop predator priests. Flynn had been brought in to his previous congregation in Lafayette, La., to clean up a clergy sexual abuse scandal there, and his work got him promoted to St. Paul. Flynn even headed up a national effort to stop clergy abuse in 2002 and helped write the national policy on abuse.
Here, Flynn repeatedly said he was being tough on abusers.
In his deposition with lawyer Jeff Anderson, Flynn passed the buck to McDonough, who dealt with the abuse issues up close. He also developed a decidedly foggy memory. More than 130 times in the deposition, Flynn said he couldn’t remember how he handled abuse cases, including some that received considerable publicity.
Flynn said he had no memory of a lawsuit brought by a man who said he was abused by the Rev. Robert Kapoun, for example. Flynn acknowledged a “financial agreement” for the Rev. Gilbert Gustafson, who pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse in 1983, but didn’t remember what the deal was.
“You have to wonder if his memory lapses were deliberate,” said Reid.
According to the charges, the church had systems in place to save children, but they were seldom followed and “enforcement was lax.”
Flynn and McDonough were repeatedly warned that the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer was a danger, but they ignored it. They eventually put him on a monitoring program, but there was little follow through. The browser on his computer was checked only twice in five years, even though the program called for it to be checked more frequently. Wehmeyer was eventually convicted of possessing child porn and sexually abusing two teenage boys — events that might have been avoided if the officials had listened and done their jobs.
Robert Clark was accused of sexual abuse and had arrests for solicitation of a prostitute. Yet, under Flynn and McDonough’s watch, he was given a teaching position.
The Rev. Mike Tegeder of St. Frances Cabrini Church, a strong critic of Nienstedt, said all parties who oversaw the sex abuse cases bear some responsibility.
“Both Nienstedt and Flynn should have their pensions and benefits significantly reduced,” Tegeder said.
Said Reid: “Maybe the best way to explain it is that [Flynn] was a creature of the times. He did nothing his peers didn’t do. It was business as usual, which is a horrible thing to say. I’m not excusing him or exonerating him. You would hope that he’d be better than that.
“It’s a sad kind of legacy,” Reid added. “He will never be one of our great bishops.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin