Tom Johnson, the clergy abuse ombudsman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, submitted a formal request to the Vatican last July to investigate possible misconduct by former Archbishop John Nienstedt.
He’s still awaiting a response.
The Vatican announced new protocols in May for holding bishops, not just priests, accountable for clergy abuse. Johnson, a former Hennepin County attorney, said he still doesn’t know why the Vatican isn’t adhering to its own standard of responding within 30 days.
“It’s a huge problem when the church is trying to restore trust,” said Johnson, who called it a “test case” of the Vatican’s much-touted protocols.
The Vatican’s representative in Washington, D.C., did not respond to questions about the Nienstedt case.
Nienstedt oversaw the archdiocese from 2008 to 2015, when he resigned following Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s decision to file civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children. The case centered on the archdiocese’s failure to discipline former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, who had a history of sexual misconduct and was charged with sexually abusing two boys at his St. Paul church.
Johnson’s complaint seeking a Vatican investigation referred to Nienstedt’s failure to discipline Wehmeyer and his misrepresentation of his relationship with Wehmeyer to county investigators.
It also cites a 2005 incident that occurred when Nienstedt was bishop of the New Ulm Diocese and a separate incident in which Nienstedt allegedly asked two boys who attended a World Youth Day event in Germany to undress in front of him in a hotel room, purportedly to dry off their clothes from the rain.
Johnson, now battling cancer, said he’s decided to speak out because of his experience meeting with survivors of clergy sex abuse. Many would have been spared abuse had their bishops disciplined known offenders, he said.
“When you sit down with someone and they say that they haven’t told anyone about this abuse for 30 years, you just get shivers,” Johnson said.
Determining whether Nienstedt should be investigated should not have been difficult, Johnson said.
“The foundation of my allegations [has] been known for five-plus years,” said Johnson. “The Vatican has been aware for some time.”
The Vatican announced its new protocols for investigating and disciplining bishops in May 2019 in response to growing demands that bishops who perpetrated abuses or allowed them to happen under their watch should be disciplined.
Many Catholics hoped that the bishops, not just priests, would see justice. At least 46 U.S. bishops have been accused of child sex abuse, or abuse or misconduct with an adult, according to Bishops Accountability, a national databank of clergy abuse documentation.
In addition Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Crookston Diocese is being investigated for interfering with a clergy abuse investigation. Twin Cities Archbishop Bernard Hebda is overseeing the investigation.
Hebda also was responsible for determining whether the Nienstedt request met the threshold for an investigation and forwarding it to the Vatican. The archdiocese declined to comment on the lag in the case.
The Vatican’s failure to respond to the request for a Nienstedt investigation points to the need for bishop investigations to be conducted by seasoned investigators rather than insiders, said Zach Hiner, a national spokesman for Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (SNAP).
He notes that it was Johnson, not an archdiocese official, who has put the spotlight on the stalled Nienstedt case.
Said Hiner: “I think the more secular officials get involved in these cases, the more traction.”