Along with other lay people, we have devoted much effort over the past four years trying to help the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis reground itself as an institution worthy of public trust. Achieving cultural change is difficult. Disappointingly, past church leaders too often failed to fulfill their most basic moral obligations, leaving victims to endure ongoing pain and eroding trust in the church.
Nevertheless, despite tragic wrongdoings, we see the work the Catholic Church does for our community, including providing schools for children of all means, meals and shelter for homeless people of all faiths, as well as other services. Our communities also benefit in many ways from the efforts of honorable priests and laity. It is worthy of the effort needed to right the ship.
Like the Catholic Church nationally, this archdiocese has had its share of tragedies linked to clergy abuse, resulting in civil lawsuits, bankruptcy and even criminal prosecution. In the last few years, steps have been taken to earn back the trust of victim-survivors and the public. Lay people with suitable skills are in place to help create safe environments and to objectively address allegations of clergy misconduct. Other archdiocesan initiatives make clear the necessity of tapping into lay expertise. We need these demonstrable actions.
Nationally, the church’s inaction is unacceptable. Like many, we are frustrated and impatient with speeches, apologies and prayers unaccompanied by consequential actions. Too many opportunities for accountability have been squandered. Recent events reveal the continued insularity of church leaders. There is still no effective process in place to resolve allegations against church leaders in a way that engenders public trust. For the good of abuse victims and the church, that must change.
Fortunately, change is achievable. An enhanced investigative process, involving lay professionals, for resolving allegations against priests has been in place in this archdiocese for four years. The ministerial review process, which is used to assess a priest’s fitness for ministry after an allegation of sexual misconduct has been investigated, is composed mostly of lay people, including victims of sexual abuse.
The progress here has been acknowledged even by critics. In 2015, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi accused the archdiocese of “institutional failure to prevent ... child sexual abuse,” and victim-survivor attorney Jeff Anderson ardently agreed. In recent months, both weighed in again. This summer, Choi stated that the archdiocese has “gone beyond the letter of the settlement agreement” and has “embraced the spirit of what we are trying to accomplish” to keep children safe. Anderson was even more pointed. He said the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has “now become the safest archdiocese in the country.” Fairness, accountability and transparency are achievable — if there is the will to bring them about.
The handling of the allegations against former Archbishop John Nienstedt serves as both an example of what has to change and an opportunity for change. Although the nature of the allegations — improper conduct with seminarians and young priests — is publicly known, and all investigative information has been submitted to those with authority to act, no action has been taken. At least, no resolution has been announced. This is intolerable.
In particular, Nienstedt’s conduct in two matters requires further inquiry. The first relates to whether he properly carried out his duties when he appointed now-convicted sex offender Curtis Wehmeyer as a pastor, and whether he later described truthfully his interactions with Wehmeyer.
The second is an allegation uncovered by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office during its investigation and publicly disclosed in 2016. That allegation is that in 2005 at a Catholic World Youth Conference in Germany prior to his assignment in this archdiocese, then-Bishop Nienstedt and two teenage minors undressed and changed out of wet clothes in each other’s presence in a hotel room. Nienstedt has denied this allegation.
We agree with the recent decision of Archbishop Bernard Hebda, made in consultation with the local Ministerial Review Board, to prohibit Nienstedt from engaging in ministry in our archdiocese while pending allegations remain unresolved. That is how priests in this archdiocese are treated when comparable allegations are under investigation. There is no reason to treat bishops differently.
Following this action by Hebda, we need other church leaders to do their duty and establish a national review board to address allegations of bishop misconduct similar to what has been established here for the review of clergy misconduct. It should be independent and weighted heavily with lay experts. All investigative materials relating to the allegations against Nienstedt should go to the new board. Then, an objective “fitness-for-ministry” decision by those authorized to do so should be made and announced publicly.
In our opinion, the cases of Nienstedt and Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, should be at the top of the new board’s list of cases requiring action. In this way, the church may continue on its path of restoring public trust, particularly with victim/survivors who have waited so long for their voices to be heard at all levels of the church.
Tim O’Malley is director of ministerial standards and safe environment for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He is a former FBI agent, superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and deputy chief judge in the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings. Tom Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and the independent ombudsman assisting victims of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He served as Hennepin County Attorney from 1979 to 1991 and was a founder of CornerHouse, a local nonprofit serving child sexual abuse victims.