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Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt resigns after charges over abuse scandal

Former Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, center, and other bishops from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota concelebrate Mass at the Altar of the Tomb in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 9, 2015. Nienstedt resigned in June 2015 after a series of scandals. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service
Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, center, and other bishops from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota concelebrate Mass at the Altar of the Tomb in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 9. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, center, and other bishops from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota concelebrate Mass at the Altar of the Tomb in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on March 9, 2012. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

(RNS) The Vatican on Monday (June 15) launched a major housecleaning of the scandal-plagued Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, accepting the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt along with that of a top Nienstedt aide, Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche.

The moves come a little over a week after authorities charged the archdiocese for failing to protect children from an abusive priest and days after Pope Francis unveiled the first-ever system for disciplining bishops who do not act against predator clerics.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters he did not know whether Nienstedt and Piche would be subject to further canonical investigation under the new process. “The situation is too complex to make a prediction on this yet,” he said, according to the Catholic news site Crux.

In April, Bishop Robert Finn of Missouri, who three years earlier became the first bishop convicted of failing to report a priest suspected of child abuse, was forced to resign, effectively the first bishop in the decades-long crisis that the Vatican pushed out for covering up for an abuser.

Also Monday, in an unprecedented move, the Vatican announced that its onetime ambassador to the Dominican Republic, the former Polish archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, would stand trial in the Vatican on charges he paid for sex with children.

READ: Vatican orders former Dominican Republic archbishop to stand trial on child abuse charges

Observers say these latest moves seem to signal an unprecedented effort by Rome to hold bishops accountable in the abuse crisis.

“I think this is a great tribute to Pope Francis,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, one of the pontiff’s top allies in the U.S. hierarchy, said when asked about Nienstedt’s resignation.

Wuerl was speaking at a conference bringing together bishops and labor leaders at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington to talk about the economy.

Wuerl said that while the Catholic Church has done a good job of addressing the problem of abusive priests, “What the pope has done is assure this also includes those responsible for supervision.”

For his part, Nienstedt did not voice any regrets.

In a statement, the archbishop said he was stepping down “to give the Archdiocese a new beginning amidst the many challenges we face,” adding: “I leave with a clear conscience.”

Piche said he resigned because the archdiocese needs “healing and hope” and he said “I was getting in the way of that.” He said he made his decision “willingly, after consultation with others in and outside the Archdiocese.”

Almost from the time he took over in the Twin Cities in 2008, Nienstedt, 68, became a polarizing figure as an outspoken conservative, especially with his focus against gay rights and same-sex marriage.

But in the past few years questions about his alleged failures to take a hard line on abusive clerics, especially a former priest now in prison, Curtis Wehmeyer, have made him a target of criticism from all sides.

Persistent questions about Nienstedt’s own personal conduct also became an issue; last year Nienstedt gave Piche, 57, the job of investigating allegations of misconduct against him, one of two separate probes of Nienstedt’s personal behavior.

In charging the archdiocese earlier this month, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said prosecutors were alleging “a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior” over the course of decades at the highest levels of leadership in the archdiocese.

Nienstedt was not personally charged, but authorities said the investigation was continuing and further charges could be filed.

Francis appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda  as the interim leader in Minneapolis-St. Paul until a permanent replacement is found. Hebda is currently in New Jersey preparing to take over the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., next year when Archbishop John Myers is expected to retire.

A brief note from the Vatican provided no details on Nienstedt’s resignation. It said only that he resigned under the provision of canon law that states that a bishop “who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.”

Victims advocates who have long pushed for Nienstedt’s removal — and who have greeted Francis’ “get tough” policies with skepticism — were not impressed with Monday’s moves.

“It’s only a very tiny drop of reform in an enormous bucket of horror,” said Frank Meuers, a Minnesota leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a national clergy victim advocates group.

“Neinstedt’s departure will, in the short term, make some adults happier,” he said. “By itself, it won’t, in the long term, make many kids safer.”

Nienstedt’s exit could also be another blow to church conservatives who already felt the winds shifting against them under Francis’ papacy.

Like Finn in Missouri, Nienstedt has been a champion of their culture war focus, and Nienstedt and his defenders argued his outspokenness had made him a target.

“As one conservative bishop after another is summarily removed over allegations of mishandling accusations of sexual abuse against other priests, we await the day when liberal bishops and cardinals who are guilty of equal if not greater offenses would experience the same treatment,” wrote a blogger at the conservative church website Rorate Caeli.

“Nienstedt’s sin is that he is an orthodox Catholic,” William Donohue of the Catholic League wrote Monday in defense of Nienstedt. “He is a good man who was unfairly treated.”

(Mark Silk contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.)


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Resigned without the headline making tribunal. As Ray Mouton stated about the tribunal, “the biggest non-story in the history of the clergy child sex abuse scandal.”

    On Sept. 26, 2014, the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Serra reported that Wesolowski was arrested by order of the pope because “there was a serious risk that the nuncio would be arrested on Italian territory at the request of the Dominican authorities and then extradited.” Wesolowski had more than 100,000 computer files of pornography. “The prelate stored part of this chamber of horrors on his own laptop. The material, which is classified by type, shows dozens of young girls engaged in sexual activities but the preference is for males. Images show youngsters aged between 13 and 17 being humiliated for the camera, filmed naked and forced to have sexual relations with each other or with adults.” The pope left him a free man for 14 months. Poor children are trafficked for sex and pornography.

  • Because brave survivors are speaking up and because Minnesota opened up the three year window of opportunity for victims to file a suit, the cover up of child sex crimes is being exposed.
    By filing a suit, this gives victims the opportunity for their lawyers to enter into the discovery phase, which allows them to subpoena secret archive documents and to subpoena high ranking officials to testify under oath. This helps to expose the child predators, but it also helps to expose those high ranking officials who continue to cover up these sex crimes.
    These two things helped prosecutors to charge the Archdiocese for their crimes of enabling children to be sexually abused.

    This needs to happen is all states, not just Minnesota. Plus the Pope must defrock Bishop Nienstedt and all clerics who cover up sex crimes. Sadly the sex abuse and cover up within the church hierarchy throughout the world is still going on to this day. Cardinals and bishops are being as quiet as possible,…

  • “Nienstedt has been a champion of their culture war focus….his outspokenness had made him a target.”

    So a right wing Rape Enabler is no problem.
    As long as he defends Christian bigotries against the gays.

    Christianity is obviously a despicable theory about humanity and it does not lead to decency.

  • I don’t understand why this stops with the bishops!

    The entire Catholic church is enabling networks of pedophiles worldwide.
    Cardinal Bernard Law – the kingpin of the Boston Priest Pedophile Network – moved known pedophiles from parish to parish for decades!

    Now Bernie Law lives in the Vatican! He has a suite of rooms in Vatican City!

    Churches need to be closed, taxes need to be levied on the properties where crimes were committed and priests who failed to deliver fellow rapists to the authorities need to go to jail.

    The Pedophile Priest networks must live in infamy.
    We must never forget the 25,000 victims – many of these perpetrators are still running Sunday schools!

  • Max, let us not also forget that Nienstedt has also been accused of being a little light in the Prada loafers as well. when questioned about this directly by Minneapolis newspaper, his comment was very revealing. He did not say “I am heterosexual.” What he said was that I’m not homosexual. That’s a loophole you could drive a very large truck through.

    And lest anyone rush to his defense by blaming gay people for attacking this “good man of God”, let us not forget as well that the former cardinal O’Brien of England was also vehemently anti-gay, and discovered to have had at least one former male lover.

  • Ben,

    You are so right!
    Years ago I strongly believed the Christian religion was fundamentally good; the hypocrisies were not a flaw in Christianity but a flaw in humanity – us poor sinners. Like blaming the leak in the roof on the leaky roof itself!

    But now I see Christianity as a despicable bargain; “eternal life” in return for sexual self-repression and mindless obedience to ancient nonsense (among other unhealthy things).

    The clergy’s anti-homosexual bluster is so predictable – the louder the hate, the stronger is their desire to fool around.

  • It is important that the world see the Vatican take very public action in regards to the sex scandal. Although the bishops acted under laws in line with Church policy at the time, many may now have to suffer for their actions after the fact to end further speculation of Papal complicity. May they offer this sacrifice of public shame for the healing of the Church and the victims. The abusers sinned directly, with full knowledge of their demonic deviant behavior and should face all penalties prescribed by Catholic and secular law.

  • And Ben you make a good point. The Church for too many years has been accepting men who are either gay, or somewhere in between, to become priests of Christ. In reality, the Latin Rite of the Church needs to end the prohibition on the married priesthood, and allow only truly celibate males, and married men to the priesthood. It works just fine in the Eastern Rites of the Church, so why not take advantage of the Tradition that is time tested. The only downside is that married priests cannot become pastors, but they can certainly assist, and say mass wherever needed. Let’s get away from this problematic, selection process that is riddled with holes, and do what the Church has been doing since the beginning. Men with mental disorders should not be allowed into the priesthood, as they cannot be trusted (these are mostly male victims).

  • Do you mean to say that the church’s process for choosing priests to make sure they have an actual vocation from god is riddled with holes?

  • Greg,

    “Men with mental disorders should not be allowed into the priesthood…”

    These men believe they are ‘called’ by God.
    Are you saying such beliefs are a sign of mental illness?
    Or are you saying God is making a big mistake in choosing them?

    Or are you agreeing with me that religions are delusional nonsense?

  • It was fine when men were willing to give everything up for the kingdom of God, but today, man has become self-centered, caring only for himself. And sadly that vanity has crept into the priesthood. So due to that secularism which has begun to seep through the foundation–which protects the Church–then it is better for men who are married, men who understand sacrifice, sacrifice for others, to take on an even greater sacrifice for Christ and his kingdom. There are some shining young men out there who are currently in the seminaries, who are on fire for Jesus, but there are not enough. So the stop gap measure, in my book, is accepting married men into the priesthood.

  • Hey Max,
    Greg1 is correct and spot-on about his observations. He sounds like a former Catholic seminarian as was I. Two points: 1) There is no such thing as an “atheist” since you cannot be absolutely sure or conclusively prove that there is no God, therefore, the most you can be is agnostic – or not knowing, and 2) If people can not see the wonder of creation and the orderliness of it all pointing to a First Cause or Primary Mover (God) then they have much more “faith” in their deluded belief system than any Christian I know.

  • Tabaga, because (a) many jurisdictions, including Minnesota, don’t use the word rape in their statutes, but instead call it criminal sexual conduct etc. (b) those jurisdictions that do use the term rape often limit it, like New York, to vaginal penetration by penis; (c) even in jurisdictions that use the term rape to cover wider degrees of penetration may not include fondling etc. (d) the clerical sexual abuse cases included “grooming” and inappropriate but not overtly sexual behavior like sleeping in the same bed while nude, group showers, etc.

  • @Greg2,

    “there is no such thing as an Atheist…cannot prove there is no god”

    I made no such claim. I never said a god was impossible. A god may exist.
    You clearly do not understand these words.

    Atheist – “I do not believe in a god.”
    Agnostic – “I do not KNOW if there is a god”

    Atheists are Agnostic. Didn’t you know that?
    Show me evidence of a god and I will believe in it. Until then I don’t believe in your gods.

    Meanwhile – explain how it is possible for you to claim Atheists don’t exist – yet you are an Atheist regarding Zeus, Thor, Aphrodite and Osiris.
    You don’t believe in those Gods, you are therefor Atheist regarding those Gods.

    I just go one god more.
    Prove your God exists or stop talking about it.