Former St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt quit a temporary post at a Michigan church Thursday, following a wave of protests from Catholic parents and abuse victim advocates.
Michigan residents opposing Nienstedt's Jan. 6 assignment at St. Philip Catholic Church had bombarded their diocese and the media, and even pulled tuition support for a Catholic school associated with the church.
"I was surprised it took an outcry for them [church leaders] to make the right decisions," said Samantha Pearl, a parent at St. Philip who was an outspoken critic of Nienstedt's move to her parish. "I'm relieved."
Advocates for clergy abuse victims also were taken aback by the swift departure of St. Paul's former archbishop, who was scheduled to help out at the Battle Creek church for six months.
"This is a first in my lifetime: A grass-roots effort drove this man out of town," said Bill McAlary, a Michigan leader of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "It shows that if the people take action, we can clean up this mess."
The two weeks of protests came to an end Thursday, when the Rev. John Fleckenstein, pastor at St. Philip, wrote a letter to parishioners saying that Nienstedt would leave his post "in light of the unintended discord that his presence was causing."
Bishop Paul J. Bradley of the Kalamazoo Diocese issued a statement later, saying he regretted not understanding the "emotional reaction" created by Nienstedt's arrival.
"Archbishop Nienstedt's presence has unintentionally brought about a sense of disunity, fear, and hurt to many of you during this brief period of time," wrote Bradley. "As your spiritual father and shepherd, I regret that more than words can express."
Nienstedt resigned from the Twin Cities 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. He had continued living at the chancery, at least part time, since then.
Fleckenstein informed his parishioners in a Jan. 10 church bulletin that Nienstedt, a longtime friend, would be moving to Battle Creek to help him at the church as he underwent medical treatment. He did not mention Nienstedt's controversial time in Minnesota.
The move was immediately condemned by victims of clergy abuse, and picked up by national news media.
Pearl said she wrote an opinion piece to the Battle Creek Enquirer after getting no response from the Kalamazoo Diocese. She was among the parents of children at a school associated with St. Philip who had received a letter from the diocese assuring them that their children were safe.
"You have placed a man clearly known to have failed to protect children from sexual predators in a position of ministry — the highest calling of God's work," wrote Pearl.
"As a victim of a child sex predator, I am infuriated at your ignorant and irresponsible behavior. Victims of sex abuse suffer a pattern of abuse after the sexual abuse, perpetrated by our parents and pastoral leadership, including the inherent message that we will not be protected."
That message apparently resonated with many Catholics.
"There are many sides to every story," said Brenda Hunt, CEO at the Battle Creek Community Foundation, which also received calls of concern and a request to pull a Catholic student scholarship fund. "But in a community that has major initiatives focusing on children and their safety, we have to be considerate who we put in leadership."
Hunt observed that the local and national spotlight was focused on a small community, which may have made opponents' efforts more successful. Battle Creek has a population of 50,000, she said.
"You have rapid communication into a pretty small geographic population," she said.
The Kalamazoo Diocese apparently was caught off guard.
"Even though we followed all the proper protocols (including appropriate background checks), it quickly became clear to me as the issue evolved that I had not anticipated well enough the emotional factors," wrote Bradley. "For the hurt this situation has caused and the fears that have been raised, I am truly sorry and I ask for your forgiveness."
Last weekend, Catholics received a packet of information from the diocese responding to concerns, said Hunt, a Catholic who attended mass. That packet included a letter from Nienstedt, who said he hoped that all the media reports wouldn't jeopardize his relationship with the church. He said he has never "been sued by anyone nor have any legal charges been made against me."
"I am not a threat to anyone," Nienstedt wrote. "I became a priest to help people, not hurt people."
Nienstedt told St. Philip's congregation Sunday that there was a lot of "misinformation" circulating about him, and that he may have been the target of attacks because of his "defense of Catholic teachings," a reference to his public stance against gay marriage.
"I think they would like to punish me for those stands," the Battle Creek Enquirer reported Nienstedt telling the congregation.
The Kalamazoo Diocese said it was not aware of Nienstedt's future plans.