Pope Francis will convene a historic clergy sex abuse summit this month, and many Minnesota Catholics are watching to see if it tackles an issue close to home — what to do about reported misconduct by bishops.
It's an issue felt keenly in the Twin Cities, where the halted 2014 investigation into former Archbishop John Nienstedt is considered by many Catholics as a case study of all that can go wrong when the church has no clear, independent policies for investigating its top leaders.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is among U.S. bishops now urging the creation of a national commission, with lay members, to tackle reports of bishop wrongdoing. It could build far more public trust than what transpired in St. Paul, which hasn't been fully resolved even after four years, many Catholics say.
"I hope that what we went through in the Twin Cities shows the compelling need for reform," said Hank Shea, law professor at the University of St. Thomas and a former assistant U.S. attorney. "Those lessons should be heeded by every American archbishop and bishop to avoid their repetition elsewhere."
There are 37 U.S. bishops — living and deceased — implicated in sexual misconduct cases, either as perpetrators or as supervisors who tolerated abuse, according to Bishop Accountability, a Massachusetts-based group that tracks clergy abuse. The former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is the most recent case.
Unlike American priests, who are subject to investigation and sanction policies initiated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, bishops have no such protocol.
"What's wrong with the system is we don't have a system," said the Rev. Tom Reese, a senior analyst for Religion News Service. "It's all dealt with on an ad hoc basis."
Sexual abuse reports are sent to the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican, he said. But its job is "making bishops, not breaking them." Said Reese: "So you need a separate office that deals with investigating when things go wrong."
'Doomed to fail'
Things did go wrong in the Twin Cities archdiocese when reports of sexual improprieties by Nienstedt surfaced in 2013, said many Catholic leaders. For starters, it was Nienstedt who ordered an investigation into himself. He appointed oversight of the probe to his two subordinates, Auxiliary Bishops Lee Piché and Andrew Cozzens.
After Piché and Cozzens received allegations of misconduct with males in Detroit and Rome from the investigators hired, they traveled to the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., to meet with then-papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò, who later halted the investigation, according to church documents. Viganò has denied it.
"In retrospect, it was doomed to fail," Cozzens wrote last year. "We did not have enough objectivity or experience with such investigations. Nor did we have authority to act."
Although Nienstedt resigned in 2015 after the Ramsey County attorney charged the archdiocese with failure to protect children, both he and the archdiocese continue to operate in a kind of limbo. Nienstedt is an "archbishop emeritus" but has few options for practicing public ministry. And the archdiocese has a new leader but is still haunted by questions about what investigators found and why it wasn't made public.
It's a constant cloud over the archdiocese as it strives to rebuild trust over its handling of child sex abuse. As recently as last fall, more than 100 Catholics, mainly young adults, signed a letter to Hebda asking him, among other things, to reopen the Nienstedt probe and "provide a full accounting of this investigation."
Likewise, Nienstedt has reiterated that he welcomes an "impartial investigation" into the matter. After Hebda last December mentioned an allegation about Nienstedt's conduct during the 2005 World Youth Day in Germany, Nienstedt issued this response:
"I welcome an investigation into this allegation, as I have welcomed all impartial investigations into allegations made against me," Nienstedt wrote. "At the same time, I do deny the veracity of this allegation. That being said, I don't want to speak poorly of the men making these accusations … I welcome an impartial look at the facts and the opportunity to defend myself."
Bishops under pressure
The letter to Hebda reflects the growing pressure on bishops to take stronger action on sex abuse. When the Catholic bishops conference met in November in Baltimore, for example, there were proposals that included a code of clergy conduct and a commission to investigate bishop complaints.
But Pope Francis halted the plan, telling bishops such discussions should wait until the summit in February.
After the meeting, Hebda publicly reiterated that Nienstedt was barred from ministry here "until all open allegations are resolved." In a December statement, Hebda also acknowledged he had sent a letter to the papal nuncio in 2016 about the allegation against Nienstedt at World Youth Day but received no response.
Clergy abuse survivors are among those following the bishops' summit. They point out that church documents show that many bishops routinely transferred abusers from one parish to another without informing the new parish or its parishioners.
Jim Keenan, who was abused as a teen by serial sex abuser and former priest Tom Adamson, has no doubt the bishops who oversaw Adamson were aware of something. Adamson himself stated in a 2014 deposition that he admitted to his Winona Diocese bishop in 1964 that he sexually abused boys. No action was taken. The priest was transferred to a dozen other parishes where files show he continued abusing children — including Keenan.
Bishops "are the traffic controllers of priests," said Keenan. "There's not a priest who comes into their realm that they don't have a full background on."
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability, said the growing list of bishops found to have enabled abuse has erased some public hesitancy to question the men in the royal robes.
"We've become more educated," said Barrett Doyle. "From prosecutors to legislators to ordinary members of the public, we're willing to treat church officials as people who are not above the law."
Hebda, meanwhile, says he'll continue to advocate for a national commission to review and make recommendations to Rome about bishop misconduct. He believes the archdiocese's Ministerial Review Board is a model for such a commission.
"We'd be asking for a green light [at the Vatican summit] to continue the discussion that we were prepared to have in November," Hebda said.
Pope Francis recently signaled that a priority of the Feb. 21-24 summit is to educate bishops of developing nations about clergy abuse. But Hebda is confident the U.S. delegation will have an opportunity to put forward its reform ideas, and that they will be discussed at the bishops conference in June.
Survivors of clergy abuse have their own ideas.
"I think there's a simple solution," Keenan said. "When there's a sex abuse case, canon law doesn't apply. Civil law applies. Bishops need to adhere to our legal system."