The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on Tuesday confirmed a monthslong investigation into new sexual misconduct allegations against Archbishop John Nienstedt.
The announcement came after a blog post in the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal reported that the Nienstedt investigation centered on allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests and other men.
In a statement Tuesday, Nienstedt said he ordered the examination himself and directed church officials to hire outside investigators. The inquiry by the Greene Espel law firm of Minneapolis is ongoing, and Jennifer Haselberger, the whistleblower who accused the archdiocese of failing to properly handle child sex abuse cases, is among the people who have been interviewed.
“These allegations are absolutely and entirely false,” Nienstedt said in the statement, which added that the allegations did not concern sexual misconduct with minors or criminal behavior. He called the allegations “a personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage.”
The revelations are a new shock for the local church, which since last year has seen repeated reports of sexual misconduct by priests and multiple lawsuits alleging that Nienstedt and other church officials failed to investigate, report or discipline priests who had abused children. In a deposition taken as part of one of those suits, Nienstedt acknowledged failing to inform police about complaints of sexual misbehavior by priests.
Previous case closed
In December, Nienstedt temporarily stepped down from public ministry while St. Paul police investigated a complaint that he had touched a boy’s buttocks during a 2009 confirmation ceremony. Authorities filed no charges and closed that case, saying they considered it “unlikely” any improper touching had occurred.
Despite that outcome, and Nienstedt’s continued support among many conservative Catholics, the archbishop faces a serious threat from the emergence of new and incendiary allegations, said Charles Reid, a professor of civil and canon law at the University of St. Thomas. “This badly damages his credibility with both laity and priests,” Reid said. “At a certain point, it becomes difficult to govern. You need the credibility and respect of your priests and your laity. At some point, it erodes. If we’re not there yet, we’re two steps away.’’
Tom Horner, a prominent lay Catholic and former Independence Party candidate for governor, believes that with the latest allegations, it’s time for Nienstedt to step down. Horner had wanted Nienstedt to resign before this and sees a crisis that “is now feeding on itself.”
“There’s a growing concern that the archbishop has lost his ability to forge consensus and pull the community together,” Horner said. “This archbishop is so divisive on so many issues that you reach a point it’s hard to see him regaining the confidence of the community.”
Questions go back to Detroit
The newest allegations stem from the years Nienstedt spent as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as bishop of the New Ulm, Minn., Diocese and as coadjutor in the Twin Cities Archdiocese.
Haselberger, the archdiocese’s former canon lawyer who turned whistleblower last year, told Commonweal that she has been interviewed.
Haselberger told the magazine that the lawyers conducting the investigation also asked about Nienstedt’s relationship with Curtis Wehmeyer, a former St. Paul priest with a history of sexual misconduct who was convicted of sexually abusing two boys in 2012.
Asked by Commonweal about Wehmeyer, Nienstedt responded with a statement describing the relationship as “pastoral’’ and “professional’’ and preceded his knowledge that Wehmeyer had abused minors.
The Rev. Mike Tegeder, pastor at St. Frances Cabrini Church and an outspoken critic of Nienstedt, questioned why Nienstedt hasn’t stepped down during the new investigation, as he did for the previous one.
Tegeder pointed out other priests have been removed from ministry while being investigated “so the same has to be done here.’’
“I’m shocked he hasn’t applied the rule he has imposed on others onto himself. He should have stepped down from ministry when these accusations came in and until the investigation was finished,” Tegeder added.
Tegeder said he hears from a growing number of laypeople who want change.
“People are just tired and discouraged,’’ he said. “If he would step down, it would be the most healing thing he could do.’’
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