Former Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt said Thursday he is “relieved” that the public now is aware of the fate of an investigation into alleged sexual improprieties by him.
A day after a 2014 memo from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was made public stating that a Vatican emissary quashed the investigation, Nienstedt repeated that he has done nothing improper, despite allegations of misconduct revealed in documents released Wednesday by the Ramsey County attorney’s office.
“I am a heterosexual man who has been celibate my entire life,” Nienstedt wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune Thursday. “I am relieved that the public now knows the extent of the allegations and can hear my response.”
The fate of the Nienstedt investigation has been a question confronting Twin Cities Catholics for two years. The memo made public this week indicated that the Vatican emissary in Washington, D.C., put the brakes on the probe, which had been looking into allegations of sexual misconduct by Nienstedt in Michigan, Minnesota and Rome.
The memo also indicated that Nienstedt had a “social relationship” with Curtis Wehmeyer, the St. Paul priest whose sexual abuse of three boys led to an unprecedented criminal case filed by the Ramsey County attorney against the archdiocese last year. The criminal charges were dropped Wednesday, but County Attorney John Choi said he was releasing some of the investigative documents “because I felt it was important for the public to have a chance to see this information.”
Nienstedt apologized for not pursuing the red flags in Wehmeyer’s behavior, which included soliciting sex from young men in a bookstore and loitering in a park known as a site for picking up male sex partners.
“As the archbishop, I should have asked more questions, I should have demanded more answers, and I should have insisted those within the archdiocesan administration at the time share more information with each other,” Nienstedt wrote. “I am sorry.”
While the revelation of what happened to the investigation may close one chapter in the archdiocese’s clergy abuse saga, it leaves open other questions for lifelong Catholics such as Mike Dougherty, a Wayzata businessman who is among Twin Cities Catholics who stopped their financial contributions to the archdiocese because of its “lack of transparency.”
“Thousands of Catholics have been waiting for this,” said Dougherty, referring to information on the investigation. “It’s clear to me and many of my friends that if Archbishop [Bernard] Hebda wants transparency and credibility, he will release the investigation report in its entirety.”
“Until then,” Dougherty said, “it’s business as usual.”
The investigation into alleged sexual improprieties by Nienstedt, spanning decades and involving reports by priests and seminarians, was being conducted by the Minneapolis law firm of Greene Espel when it was halted. It was approved by Nienstedt himself, who said he did so “for the benefit of the archdiocese,” which had been receiving allegations of alleged misconduct. Nienstedt called them “personal attacks against me due to my unwavering stance on … so-called same-sex marriage.”
“I have never solicited sex, improperly touched anyone and have not used my authority to cover up, or even try to cover up, any allegation of sexual abuse,” Nienstedt wrote.
The released memo indicates that former Vatican emissary Carlo Maria Viganò ordered the Nienstedt investigation halted. Viganò, who retired in April, was the papal envoy who arranged last year’s meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Ky., clerk who made headlines for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to request for comment. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, told the National Catholic Reporter on Thursday that the Vatican is not commenting because “we are speaking of a complex situation in which there is not sufficient information.”
A rare, ‘bizarre’ situation
Vatican experts such as John Thavis, a Minnesota native who covered the Vatican for 30 years for the Catholic News Service, said it’s not unusual for papal diplomats to get involved in archdiocese matters. But it’s surprising that one would order a halt to an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct by an archbishop.
“In important cases, the nuncio should be a conduit for information to go to Rome — not the guy who blocks the information,” Thavis said.
That said, an investigation into possible sexual improprieties of a sitting archbishop, by his archdiocese, is basically unheard of, Thavis said. So the entire situation is “a little bizarre,” he said.
Thavis was unsure whether Viganò would have even reported it to the Vatican, as papal diplomats have considerable authority.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, agreed that the situation unfolding in Minnesota is treading new ground.
“Everything about this case is unique,” said Reese, including the investigation itself, the quashing of it and now the resurrection of internal documents by a county attorney.
“It shows the difficulties the church has in investigating and dealing with bishops who are not doing what they’re supposed to do, or might be doing bad things,” he said.
Meanwhile, the author of the 2014 memo that revealed the Vatican emissary’s role in ending the Nienstedt probe said he stands by his report and is hopeful about the archdiocese’s future.
“The memo speaks for itself,” said the Rev. Dan Griffith, a priest who was the liaison between investigators and the archdiocese. “I have confidence in Archbishop Hebda … and his safe environment team. I welcome the opportunity to work with them in protecting children and in facilitating greater healing for the victims of clergy abuse.”