Signs abound that the leadership crisis sparked by priest abuse of children in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has come to a breaking point. Consider these developments just this month:
• A judge in St. Paul — a city whose history and culture are inseparable from the Roman Catholic Church — refused to set aside a lawsuit’s claim that the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona had created a public nuisance with their handling of abusive priests. District Judge John Van de North said he is seeking more information on that charge as he allowed a suit to go forward on claims of negligence.
• An affidavit by former archdiocesan canon law chancellor Jennifer Haselberger reported a “cavalier attitude about the safety of other people’s children” at the archdiocese’s top levels, leading to lax investigations and continued priestly service by suspected abusers. Haselberger resigned from her post in 2013 because, she said, she could no longer work for an organization that was not fully cooperating with an investigation of illegal activity within it.
• The archdiocese confirmed to the Star Tribune that Archbishop John Nienstedt is the subject of a monthslong investigation of sexual misconduct with seminarians, priests and other men.
• Minnesota Public Radio aired an hourlong documentary, “Betrayed by Silence,” detailing how three St. Paul/Minneapolis archbishops — Nienstedt and his predecessors John R. Roach and Harry Flynn — ignored or downplayed evidence and, until this year, concealed the names of priests credibly accused of molesting children.
• An editorial in the New York Times said that if Pope Francis is serious about holding bishops accountable for the abuse scandal that has rocked the church, a “good place to start” would be St. Paul and Minneapolis, with the removal of Nienstedt.
Today, with sadness, this newspaper joins that call. For the sake of one of this state’s most valued institutions and the Minnesotans whose lives it touches, Nienstedt’s service at the archdiocese should end now.
It will take months, and maybe years, for legal and ecclesiastical proceedings to sort out the charges that have been leveled by Haselberger and others who’ve been wronged by the church and its leaders. Those cases should go forward with care and diligence. Minnesotans deserve assurance that in this state, justice is available even when “the least of these” fall prey to people entrusted with power.
But the continued presence of the embattled Nienstedt in the chancery increases the likelihood that those matters will impede the work of the church in the larger community. Deservedly or not, Nienstedt has become the face of a coverup that has put children in harm’s way. His credibility is in tatters. The archdiocese needs a different leader — a reformer — to have a reasonable chance of restoring its damaged reputation and sustaining its service to the community.
We’ve been hesitant to make this call until now for two reasons. We consider it presumptuous for a secular news organization to advise a church about internal matters. And just two years ago, the Star Tribune Editorial Board and Nienstedt openly quarreled about the ballot question that would have constitutionally banned same-sex marriage in this state. Although that disagreement is unrelated to today’s call for Nienstedt to depart, we know some readers will question our motivation.
A larger concern now overrides those considerations, however. The Catholic name attaches not only to churches, but to schools, colleges, hospitals, homeless shelters, congregate dining, care for the elderly and a host of other good works that serve more than Catholics. The damage that brand name is suffering in Minnesota has become severe enough to put public support — and, crucially, donor support — of all things Catholic at risk. The abuse scandal has become more than an internal problem.
Catholic organizations, including the annual fund drive formerly known as the Archbishop’s Appeal, have gone to considerable lengths since the scandal broke to distance themselves from the chancery, both legally and in public perception. The distraction from core mission that those efforts represent is regrettable. The likelihood that they will also be insufficient if Nienstedt remains is growing, and worrisome. Minnesota needs the work that those church-affiliated entities do.
This state also has benefited since its founding from the calls for compassion, social justice and civic harmony that have emanated from this archdiocese. The moral authority that those calls once carried is now badly eroded, and Nienstedt is in no position to restore it.
Neither does the chancery incumbent stand much chance of rallying support for new practices and attitudes that might prevent future scandals. The church is paying a high price for its misdeeds and misjudgment. But it is also being presented with a rare opportunity to bring in a new order of transparency and accountability, provided a leader emerges who can rally the faithful behind a reform agenda.
We’ve heard from prominent Minnesota Catholics who have made quiet but urgent pleas to the Vatican for Nienstedt’s replacement. Those pleas deserve heed. But we also hope Nienstedt takes to heart the example of Pope Benedict. Eighteen months ago, Benedict concluded that he was not up to the task of meeting the church’s leadership needs, and broke with 600 years of tradition to resign from office. His decision was not a display of weakness, but of love for his church. Nienstedt’s resignation would show the same.