A Vatican official reportedly shut down an investigation into allegations of sexual improprieties by former Archbishop John Nienstedt.

An internal church memo, part of an often explosive batch of clergy abuse documents released Wednesday by Ramsey County, showed that in 2014, the Vatican's representative in Washington, D.C., instructed bishops of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese to halt an archdiocese-commissioned investigation into Nienstedt.

The bishops objected in a letter that shutting down the investigation "would rightly be seen as a coverup,'' according to a memo written by priest and lawyer Rev. Dan Griffith, the chancery's liaison with investigators.

In response, the Vatican's then-U.S. emissary, Carlo Vigano, asked the bishops to take their letter back "and destroy it," Griffith wrote.

The archdiocese had hired the Minneapolis law firm of Greene Espel to examine allegations going back years against the former archbishop, and investigators were in pursuit of 24 leads, Griffith said.

One of those leads involved a "social relationship" between Nienstedt and the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a St. Paul priest convicted in 2013 of sexually abusing the sons of a church employee. A relative of a chancery employee, for example, "had heard Wehmeyer comment on more than one occasion that he had had dinner the previous evening with Archbishop Nienstedt," wrote Griffith.

"As you know, the case of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer has garnered much media attention, including red flags missed by the Archdiocese and the subsequent abuse of two minor boys," wrote Griffith. "What is not known by the press, the public or many in archdiocesan leadership is that the evidence suggests Archbishop Nienstedt had an ongoing social relationship with Fr. Wehmeyer, [which] included dining together and drinking alcohol."

"These interactions … raise troubling questions regarding the decisionmaking of Archbishop Nienstedt and whether his judgment … may have been affected by his own alleged past misconduct," the memo said.

The internal documents were released just hours after the Ramsey County attorney's office said it was dropping criminal charges against the archdiocese for its handling of Wehmeyer, now serving time in jail for child sex abuse. County Attorney John Choi had filed both civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese, calling the facts of the Wehmeyer case "appalling."

The archdiocese reached a settlement agreement on the civil complaint in December.

The archdiocese issued a statement by its attorney Joe Dixon in response to the release of hundreds of pages of internal documents surrounding the Wehmeyer case. Dixon noted that the Ramsey County attorney and St. Paul police had investigated the archdiocese for three years and had reviewed all documents just made public.

"Today, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi told the public there is no basis to bring a criminal charge against any of those leaders," wrote Dixon. "He also dismissed all of the criminal charges against the Archdiocese. That dismissal is unconditional and speaks for itself."

Preliminary findings

However, the information discovered by investigators about possible sexual improprieties by Nienstedt — spanning from Minnesota to Detroit and Rome — so concerned former auxiliary bishop Lee Piché and bishop Andrew Cozzens that they flew to Washington, D.C., to present the findings to then-Vatican emissary Carlo Vigano, Griffith wrote. Nienstedt accompanied them.

Soon after that meeting, Vigano ordered the investigation curtailed, wrote Griffith, adding that Nienstedt "may have convinced the Nuncio that the allegations against him were all false. … "

"The Nuncio said that the [Greene Espel] lawyers were not to pursue any further leads," the memo said.

The memo, dated July 7, 2014, states that investigators were pursuing alleged sexual misconduct by Nienstedt with seminarians, priests and a Swiss guardsman in Rome. Griffith clearly was frustrated.

"What has unfolded in the face of compelling evidence amounts to a good old fashioned coverup to preserve power and avoid scandal and accountability," he wrote.

Reportedly living in Michigan, Nienstedt has in the past denied any sexual impropriety.

Attorney Jeff Anderson, who represented the family of the boys abused by Wehmeyer at his Sacred Heart Church in St. Paul, discussed the memo at a news conference Wednesday. He questioned Pope Francis' stated commitment to combating clergy abuse, if his own representatives were quashing investigations.

If the pope is serious about protecting children from abuse by clergy, he would take action against individuals who have covered it up, argued Anderson.

"If he does, it will send a message across the country that this is intolerable," Anderson said.

The criminal case

A possible coverup by the Vatican overshadowed what otherwise was to be the main news of the day, namely Ramsey County's announcement that it would drop criminal charges it filed against the archdiocese last year for failure to protect the boys molested by Wehmeyer. The boys were the sons of a church employee, abused in a trailer outside the church.

The announcement came after archdiocese officials at a court hearing outlined the steps they were taking to improve their response to clergy abuse claims, and after Archbishop Bernard Hebda publicly acknowledged the church's failures.

"From the beginning, it has been our position that the archdiocese must directly admit fault and wrongdoing," Choi said at a news conference in St. Paul. "Today … that public admission has been made."

Hebda made that admission at a news conference.

"John Choi and I have committed to a course of action to keep children as safe as possible," Hebda said at a news conference. "Today we humbly acknowledge our past failures … and pledge to move forward openly.

"Today, I, as the leader of this archdiocese, stand before you to say: We failed — in what we have done and in what we have failed to do," said Hebda. "In particular, we failed to prevent [former St. Paul priest] Curtis Wehmeyer from sexually abusing children. … We are sorry."

While criminal charges against an archdiocese are rare, so was the settlement reached last December in the civil case, which required the archdiocese to create new procedures for handling abuse complaints and to submit to audits and some county attorney oversight.

In its first status report to the court Wednesday, the archdiocese said it had made significant progress.

All 576 priests and deacons in the archdiocese have been subject to criminal background checks and have taken child protection training. Schools, parishes and other church bodies also are expected to be in full compliance with the background checks and training, their report said.

On Wednesday, Choi added another layer of court oversight to the settlement. That included allowing Ramsey County to designate a seat on the archdiocese's ministerial review board.

Choi's choice: nationally known children's advocate Patty Wetterling, mother of Jacob Wetterling, who was kidnapped in 1989.

Choi said that what the archdiocese has agreed to do is "unprecedented" and should be a model for child protection protocol for the United States.

Closing both the criminal and civil cases represents a benchmark moment for the archdiocese, which will now be able to focus its resources on financial reorganization and victim compensation in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511