The release of Archbishop John Nienstedt’s court deposition on clergy abuse Tuesday has aggravated his already difficult relationship with concerned Catholics but also reinforced his support among admirers.
That divide could widen Thursday, when the deposition of the archdiocese’s point person on child sex abuse — the Rev. Kevin McDonough — will also be made public on video and text.
Even as Nienstedt’s testimony stoked new debate among 800,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, there were pleas from all sides to reform how the church handles child abusers.
“I think the message to the faithful members of the archdiocese is this: If you have a question about whether a child is at risk, pick up the phone and call law enforcement,” said Suzanne Severson, a member of Spirit of St. Stephen’s Church in Minneapolis.
Like many Catholics, Severson, a member of a group called Voice of the Faithful, logged into her computer after work Tuesday to read and watch portions of Nienstedt’s deposition, ordered as part of one of more than two dozen abuse lawsuits filed against the archdiocese in the past year. She was particularly interested in Nienstedt’s testimony about the Rev. Jonathan Shelley, who had been a priest at her church, she said.
To hear Nienstedt say that he couldn’t determine whether the pornography on Shelley’s computer was of adolescents or older boys, and that he didn’t report it, was particularly disturbing, she said.
Nienstedt’s testimony that he did report suspected misconduct by priests supports the suit’s allegations that the archdiocese didn’t act to stop known abusers, said Charles Reid, a professor of civil and canon law at the University of St. Thomas.
Nienstedt also testified that he was not aware of any child sex abusers in the archdiocese and had not even requested a list of them.
Even when there were clear suspicions of abuse, police were not called, Nienstedt said.
“This harms his credibility tremendously,” said Reid, who said Nienstedt appeared “incurious” about what was purported to be the highest archdiocese priority — the protection of children.
The deposition, along with the now-dismissed allegation that he had touched a boy inappropriately at a confirmation ceremony years ago, has put Nienstedt on the radar screen of Vatican officials, Reid said.
“He’s getting known in the Holy See — and not in a good way,” he said.
Upset but faithful
Many parishioners who attended noon mass Wednesday at the Church of the Assumption in downtown St. Paul said they were sympathetic to Nienstedt and said they felt he was honest in his deposition.
“I think Archbishop Nienstedt is a really wonderful man,” said Lynne Carlson, Shoreview.
“I think he was terribly bewildered by it [the deposition]. I will pray about it.”
But some of their sentiments were conflicted as they tried to reconcile their support with the reality that children have been abused by priests.
“I don’t understand it completely,” said Jim Kreager of West St. Paul. “Until we get all the facts, I don’t want it to be a witch hunt. We’re upset about it, but we remain faithful to the Catholic Church.”
Good work overshadowed
At St. Frances Cabrini Church in Minneapolis, the Rev. Mike Tegeder lamented that the publicity over how abusers were handled in the chancery has deflected from the good work of thousands of staff and volunteers who work in churches.
Those people have undergone background checks, attended continuing education workshops and worked to ensure local parishes are safe places for children.
“That’s the untold story here,” Tegeder said.
He also worried about the effect the scandal was having on the public perception of Catholic schools and other institutions.
“It’s complicated, but the general impression is that kids are at risk,” Tegeder said.
“I think [Nienstedt] was trying his best to be honest,” Ash Dias said as he left St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis on Wednesday evening.
“He’s trying to heal the diocese and the people. God will help him.”
The Rev. Tom Doyle, a Virginia-based canon lawyer who has testified on behalf of alleged victims in hundreds of clergy abuse cases in civil courts, said he was not surprised by Nienstedt’s deposition.
“I’ve seen a lot of depositions, and what he did is not uncommon,” Doyle said.
McDonough is next
Church leaders often claim a lack of knowledge of abusers in their diocese, have memory lapses about key facts and dates and fail to report the abuse to police, he said.
The church’s handling of abuse cases will be highlighted again Thursday, when court-ordered testimony of its longtime arbiter of child sex abuse allegations is made available to the public.
McDonough was vicar general from 1991 to 2008 under Archbishops John Roach and Harry Flynn. He then became the “delegate for safe environment,” overseeing child abuse prevention efforts.
He stepped down last year shortly before media reported that he was a key decisionmaker in several abusive priest cases.
Nienstedt frequently mentioned McDonough in his deposition, saying that he did a “good job” but also claiming that McDonough was aware of the details of wayward clergy, and he was not.