The pastor of a large Twin Cities parish has taken the unusual step of publicly questioning whether Archbishop John Nienstedt should continue in his post amid a widening priest sex abuse scandal.
The Rev. Bill Deziel, who heads the 6,000-member Church of St. Peter, used his church’s Sunday bulletin to call for a “do-over” of archdiocesan leadership. “When things get this bad,” Deziel wrote to his parishioners, “sometimes a fresh start is needed for all involved.” Such a change, he said, “could get us moving again with all that Christ calls us to do.”
Jim Accurso, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said Tuesday that Nienstedt will address clergy sexual misconduct in his column for the Catholic Spirit, which will be available online Thursday.
Deziel, who was appointed to his North St. Paul parish by Nienstedt in 2011, also publicly called on the archdiocese to release the names of 33 priests accused of sexually abused children and to open the so-called vault in the chancery offices so its files on priests can be inspected by law enforcement.
In addition, a St. Paul attorney has begun an online petition drive calling for Nienstedt’s resignation. Thomas Lyons, a Catholic and a former president of the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association, said Tuesday that Nienstedt can no longer fulfill the duties of his office.
“What this man can do, if he is truly remorseful, he should resign and give the pope an opportunity to appoint an uncorrupt person to serve the faithful of Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Lyons said.
St. Peter’s is considered a conservative church and was among those that supported Nienstedt’s efforts for the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Amid growing scrutiny from law enforcement and the faithful, Deziel’s letter is the most vocal public criticism from the ministry of Nienstedt’s leadership.
“Things can’t seem to be more twisted and out of hand,” Deziel wrote to the parish. “It leaves us all crying foul and I share the frustration and outrage that many of you have expressed.”
The message to parishioners comes as Twin Cities Catholics confront a new wave of allegations of priest sexual abuse and accusations that some Catholic leaders ignored warnings of sexual misconduct. The scandal already has toppled Nienstedt’s vicar general, the Rev. Peter Laird, and prompted abrupt resignations from the University of St. Thomas board by former Archbishop Harry Flynn and his former top deputy, the Rev. Kevin McDonough. Both have been criticized for not responding appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Deziel is also questioning Nienstedt’s decision to select the Rev. Reginald Whitt to lead a commission to review the church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations. Whitt lives in a priest residence at St. Thomas with a small group of clergy that until recently included the Rev. Michael Keating, a Catholic studies professor on leave from the university after new allegations that he sexually abused a 13-year-old girl in the late 1990s.
Keating moved off campus when he took a leave of absense from the university Oct. 11.
“It now is clear that only outside, independent investigating can get to the bottom of this and can begin to get us out of this mess,” Deziel wrote. The reports of priest sexual abuse are disturbing, he said, “yet even more disturbing to many of the faithful is the apparent lack of good judgment and common sense on the part of our archdiocesan leaders to deal with the offending priests.”
Deziel could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In his message to the parish, he urged several steps to assure the public and fellow Catholics that the archdiocese is serious about dealing with the problems facing the church.
In addition to leadership change, Deziel called for the need to restore trust. Unless the names of the 33 priests who officials believe are “credibly” accused of sexually abusing children are made public, he said, “it leaves all of us wondering who these men are, and which priests may be threats to our children and young people.”
Similarly, he said, not only must the files on accused priests be inspected by independent authorities, “the findings of this investigation should be made public and charges filed if necessary.”
The Rev. Mike Tegeder, who leads St. Frances Cabrini Church in Minneapolis, said he supports Deziel’s proposals.
“We have to change the leadership from the top, and Archbishop Nienstedt has to go,” Tegeder said.
Tegeder has been a vocal critic of Nienstedt, most recently during the archbishop’s strong financial and personal support for the effort to block same-sex marriage.
Lyons said he has grown increasingly frustrated as Nienstedt and other church leaders plunged the archdiocese into controversy by protecting those he called sexual predators. The ongoing scandal, Lyons said, taints the honorable work of the many fine priests and nuns he adored as a child.
“He doesn’t want to admit he is at the top of the stinky, messy administration,” Lyons said. “What else can I do? I wrote to the archbishop and got nothing. I am angry. I am not protesting, I haven’t quit my job to protest at the chancery. There’s no person I can go to, so I started the petition.”
Nienstedt has gained wide praise for steering the faithful toward a stricter adherence to Catholic orthodoxy. He has strong support among Catholics who prefer a smaller, more devoted following to a larger, more diverse church with more visible dissension. He has gained critics and fans for his strong opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, bedrock beliefs that some Catholics feel has been muddied in modern society.
The latest sex abuse scandals have opened up a new area of criticism for Nienstedt, one that has downed Catholic leaders in other states.
“I realize that they are dramatic and bold steps,” Deziel wrote. “Short of these, the good faith and credibility of the archdiocese will be considered suspect, or downright bankrupt for years.”