It’s been a rough twelve months for Archbishop John Nienstedt. The Archbishop of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul faced massive criticism after the state voted against banning gay marriage, despite his attempts to use his pulpit and power to actively order other clergy and their parishioners to vote in favor of the ban. With the state following up shortly afterward by passing a bill to allow same sex marriage, the Archbishop’s clout continued to fall.
Then at the end of September 2013, Minnesota Public Radio released a devastating report alleging continued issues of sexual abuse by priests in the church, with clergy involved in keeping the stories out of the press. The news shocked the state, causing Nienstedt to eventually agree to release the names of all priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct. In early December a Ramsey County judge ordered that a list of 46 priests “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children be made public.
As news of a potential coverup spread, Nienstedt eventually addressed the issue, making a public statement at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Parish on December 15. “I am here to apologize for the indignation that you justifiably feel. You deserve better,” Neinstedt stated in his homily. ”The negative news reports about past incidents of clerical sexual abuse in this local church have rightly been met with shame, embarrassment and outrage that such heinous acts could be perpetrated by men who had taken priestly vows as well as bishops who failed to remove them from ministry.”
He then went on to state that the majority of the crimes happened decades ago and were in the past and done with. “When I arrived here seven years ago, one of the first things I was told was that this whole issue of clerical sex abuse had been taken care of and I didn’t have to worry about it,” the Archbishop told reporters, according to the National Catholic Reporter. “Unfortunately I believed that. … And so my biggest apology today is to say I overlooked this. I should have investigated it a lot more than I did. When the story started to break at the end of September, I was as surprised as anyone else.”
Was the abuse really in the past, and did Nienstedt have his own reasons for not looking into it more closely? New news reports have uncovered that the Archbishop himself is now being accused of inappropriate touching, having allegedly touched a minor boy while posing for a photograph in 2009. “The single incident is alleged to have occurred in 2009 during a group photography session with the archbishop following a confirmation ceremony,” said a St. Paul Police statement about the investigation.
Nienstedt denies the allegations, but has stepped down from his role as Archbishop while the investigation continues. “I do not know the individual involved; he has not been made known to me,” he wrote in a letter to members of his faith. “I presume he is sincere in believing what he claims, but I must say that this allegation is absolutely and entirely false. I have never once engaged in any inappropriate contact with a minor and I have tried to the very best of my ability to serve this Archdiocese and the church faithfully, with honor and due regard for the rights of all, even those with whom I disagree. I have taken strong stands on the moral teachings of the Church and been criticized for it. I would not have done so if I did not believe those teachings and was personally bound to living up to them in practice. True, I am a sinner, but my sins do not include any kind of abuse of minors. I have met victims and I know the lasting damage that such abuse causes.”
Whether or not Nienstedt is cleared of the accusation, this new turn in the scandal could potentially provide the final motivation to remove him fully from his post. Catholics were already wondering in October if he could survive the sex scandal without ending up either removed from office or behind bars. Now the question is even more pertinent, and other priests, like his critic, Rev. Michael Tegeder, are encouraging him to stay out of the church.
“These things can’t be very pleasant, and I think it would be good for him to have a fresh start, and it would be good for our archdiocese to have a fresh start and just allow things to move forward here,” he told MPR News.
But when it comes to Nienstedt leaving because he may have been more involved than previously thought? “This is not the way that I would hope that it would come about,” said Tegeder.
Photo credit: Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minnesota