Several significant donors to the Catholic Church and Catholic causes say they no longer support Archbishop John Nienstedt and will stop giving money to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis until it has a new leader.

"His leadership has lost a lot of effectiveness," said Jim Graves, a prominent Twin Cities hotelier and devoted Catholic. "I have nothing personally against the archbishop, but I think a change is appropriate."

The archdiocese and Nienstedt have drawn intense criticism over the handling of allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and the archbishop said last month he is refocusing plans for a $160 million capital campaign. A feasibility study had been done to gauge support for fundraising the archdiocese described as essential.

In written responses to questions from the Star Tribune Wednesday, Nienstedt acknowledged the difficulties facing the archdiocese.

"I am sorry that many have lost confidence in me," Nienstedt wrote. "I completely understand the sadness and frustration that is being expressed. It is my most sincere hope that the commitments and actions my leadership team and I are taking and will continue to take will restore trust with our communities."

On Wednesday he again called attention to steps he said he had ordered to protect children and vulnerable adults, pledging to "take action that will truly address these very troubling concerns."

Those actions, he said, included giving the new vicar for ministerial standards unprecedented authority to address issues associated with clergy misconduct; forming an independent lay task force to examine past practices and policies, ordering the review of clergy files by an outside firm and authorizing "the prudent and ongoing disclosure of information as we ascertain all of the facts from a review of clergy files."

Lay Catholics hold no sway in the selection or termination of an archbishop, with those decisions made solely by the Vatican. But it is rare for even a handful of influential members of the local Catholic community to step out so publicly against an archbishop. They join a handful of local priests who have publicly called for new leadership.

Several major donors say they will not give to any capital campaign or other archdiocese-led initiatives until its leadership is replaced.

"Given the present circumstances with the archdiocese and the current leadership, we don't plan to continue contributing to the archdiocese," said James R. Frey, president and CEO of the Frey Foundation of Minnesota, which gives money to dozens of nonprofit and Catholic-related organizations that serve the poor.

Frey and his wife have personally given to previous archdiocesan appeals and helped pay down debt at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

"I don't know how, in the present circumstances, how the archbishop will be able to regain the trust of the contributors," Frey said. "I don't know how that can continue."

Nienstedt, however, repeated his earlier denial of rumors that he had asked the Vatican to replace him at the head of the archdiocese. "I am responsible for leading this local Church and accountable for ensuring we have safe environments where the Gospel of Jesus Christ can flourish," he wrote Wednesday. "It is my responsibility to repair the damage that has been done, whether on my watch or not. This is my highest priority."

Making changes

Nienstedt supporters say he is taking strong steps to restore faith in the archdiocese. They note that most of the priest misconduct allegations arose before Nienstedt took over as archbishop, and he has been left with the difficult job of handling the aftermath.

The Rev. Bill Deziel, pastor at the Church of St. Peter in North St. Paul, questioned the archdiocese leadership in his church's bulletin last month. After reading Nienstedt's column, he said his support was renewed.

"I believe that the independent work of the task force combined with the review of all clergy files by an outside firm will encourage many concerned faithful to regain their trust and confidence in our archdiocesan leadership," Deziel said.

For others, those steps are not enough.

Tom Horner, a Twin Cities public affairs strategist and donor to the church, said that, "Archbishop Nienstedt has become too much of a lightning rod to be effective in this role. For the issues of faith that I care deeply about, I would prefer new leadership."

'Death by 1,000 cuts'

An attorney and longtime Twin Cities Catholic contributor who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, "I don't think you can underestimate the depth of the feelings in the Catholic community, the outright anger. The number one rule in a crisis is to get all the news out," he said. "I am worried they haven't done that. It keeps dribbling out. It's death by 1,000 cuts."

A senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter said local anxiety about the archbishop is unlikely to reach Rome.

"The pope has got thousands of bishops all over the world," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, with many of them facing far worse criticism than Nienstedt.

John Derus, a lobbyist, management consultant and devout Catholic, said the church is not defined only by the actions of bad priests. The church, he said, is also embodied in its good deeds, the ones that often get no attention.

Derus, who attended Catholic DeLaSalle High School and now sits on its board, said that in time of scandal and crisis, critical and angry Catholics have an obligation to return to the church and work even harder toward the larger mission of social justice and caring for the less fortunate.

To those calling for Nienstedt to be tossed out, Derus warned: "The Catholic Church is not a democracy. We don't get to vote on this or that."

A ripple effect

Several Catholics said they worry about a ripple effect that could hurt fundraising at other Catholic-related organizations that often function as a last resort for many of the most needy. Average donors, they say, may not realize that the archdiocese cannot draw money from groups such as Catholic Charities.

"I have a fear that the archbishop's actions are putting those institutions at risk," said Frey, who is a top contributor to Catholic Charities and whose wife previously chaired the board.

Prominent Catholic donor Brian Short, a lawyer from Minneapolis who is on the University of Notre Dame's Law School Advisory Council, recently voiced the same concern at a news conference.

"No one would quarrel with what St. Joseph's Home for Children does for kids in this town, and it's able to do that because the Catholic Church can marshal volunteers and resources to serve children,'' said Short, who serves on the archdiocese task force. "That's why I think it's important to get this stuff fixed.''

Frey, Graves and Horner said they plan to redirect donations they would have made to the archdiocese and instead send the money to Catholic Charities and other similar groups.

"With these controversies, it makes it an easier decision to where the money is going," Horner said.

Staff writer Tony Kennedy contributed to this report.

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044