Six months after he resigned as archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, John Nienstedt has taken a temporary job as an assistant to a parish priest in Michigan, the Kalamazoo Diocese confirmed Wednesday.
Nienstedt will assist the Rev. John Fleckenstein, pastor at St. Philip Catholic Church in Battle Creek as that priest undergoes medical treatment. Fleckenstein disclosed the news in his Jan. 10 church bulletin without making mention of Nienstedt's controversial time in Minnesota.
The Twin Cities archdiocese did not inform its estimated 800,000 members of Nienstedt's move, which victims' advocates called "an outrage."
Nienstedt resigned from the archdiocese last June after the Ramsey County attorney's office filed civil and criminal charges claiming that the church had failed to protect children from clergy sex abuse under his watch.
Nienstedt's relocation was first reported this week by archdiocese whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger, after she was sent a copy of the Michigan church bulletin and published it on her blog. The bulletin said Nienstedt will visit the sick and homebound, celebrate mass and perform other pastoral duties in his new role.
"The archdiocese should be pleased," said Haselberger, a former canon lawyer at the archdiocese. "He [Nienstedt] is gone, which is what a lot of people wanted. And hopefully some of the costs of supporting him will be gone."
However, Haselberger, an outspoken critic of the archdiocese's handling of clergy sex abuse, questioned Nienstedt's fitness for parish duties. "The archdiocese is facing criminal charges from when [Nienstedt] was its leader," she said.
Nienstedt has been living, at least part-time, in the archbishop's residence in St. Paul, said several church leaders. That building is for sale as part of the archdiocese's bankruptcy.
The search for another archbishop is well under way, which would make the removal of the "archbishop emeritus" useful, said Charles Reid, a law professor at University of St. Thomas.
"It wouldn't surprise me if we were closer to getting an archbishop named," Reid said. "This would give him a clean start; there would be no divided loyalties."
Reid, too, was concerned about Nienstedt's ability to properly handle any complaints of clergy abuse that could arise in his new parish, given his failure to remove from ministry former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, now serving time in jail for child sex abuse.
"And what about the insurance carriers in Michigan?" he asked. "What will they say about this?"
The move to Michigan isn't surprising, as Nienstedt grew up in the state and spent his early career in the Detroit area, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer and national victims' advocate. It could also give him some personal freedom, as he is not such a well-known figure there, other church leaders said.
Nor is Nienstedt's backward career move a surprise. Stepping into a low-profile role has not been unusual for the roughly 20 bishops who have resigned or retired under a cloud over the years, said Doyle.
It's unclear how the Michigan post came about. In a short statement, the Diocese of Kalamazoo said that Nienstedt "volunteered" for the job. Personal friendship likely came into play. Fleckenstein wrote that he had known Nienstedt since the mid-1990s, since Nienstedt was pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower Parish in Royal Oak, Mich.
The former archbishop "will celebrate some of the weekend and weekday masses, visit the sick … and celebrate mass for the nursing home and assisted living facilities. He will also celebrate some masses on Sundays around the Diocese when there is a priest who needs to be away," Fleckenstein wrote. "After about six months, he [Nienstedt] anticipates moving on to a new ministry," he wrote.
Neither Fleckenstein nor Nienstedt was available for comment. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis declined to comment on the move.
That the archdiocese didn't notify Catholics that their leader of seven years was leaving town angered some people.
"It's a continued coverup of what's going on," said Tom Lyons, a Minneapolis attorney and outspoken Niensted critic.
The move was condemned by SNAP, the Survivors Network of those abused by Priests.
"We call on Pope Francis to reverse it and all of Minnesota's and Michigan's bishops to denounce it," wrote national director David Clohessy.
He said Nienstedt's role in the handling of Twin Cities' clergy sex abuse cases should disqualify him.