A church leader in the Twin Cities finds himself at the center of a sexual misconduct investigation he ordered.
After it was recently alleged that Archbishop John Nienstedt has engaged in multiple instances of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests and other men involved in the church, the head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has found himself at the center of a sexual misconduct investigation that he ordered to ferret out other instances of abuse in the church.
Nienstedt called for an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse within the church late last year. He even instructed church officials to hire investigators that were not connected to the church, creating the sense that the archbishop was committed to ending sexual abuse by church leaders.
But by December 2013, Nienstedt was being investigated for making unwanted sexual advances after an individual claimed that the archbishop touched his buttocks during a confirmation photo shoot in 2009. Nienstedt stepped down while the investigation occurred, and returned to his post after the county prosecutor opted to not bring charges against him.
Shortly after the young man said Nienstedt touched his buttocks, other individuals came forward with allegations that Nienstedt had sexually assaulted them before he became archbishop of the 800,000-member diocese in 2008. (This is reportedly why the case involving inappropriate touching at a confirmation in 2009 has been reopened.)
Nienstedt has denied the allegations, saying they are “a personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage.” He couldn’t fully explain some of the allegations, but he claims that in at least one instance, the accusations of improper touching concerned a person’s neck — not genitals.
In 2012, Nienstedt donated $650,000 in church funds to support the effort in Minnesota to write an amendment in the state’s constitution banning same-sex marriage. The archbishop explained that homosexuality is something created by “Satan” and said that “those who actively encourage or promote sexual acts…formally cooperate in a grave evil and, if they do so knowingly and willingly, are guilty of mortal sin.”
Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché has backed Nienstedt, pointing out that the claims do not involve “anything criminal or with minors.”
Not everyone is convinced that Nienstedt is free of wrongdoing. Jennifer Haselberger, the archbishop’s former top canon lawyer turned whistleblower, says she resigned in April 2013 because the archdiocese failed to properly investigate and prosecute child sex abuse cases, not everyone is convinced that Nienstedt is free of wrongdoing.
In addition to allegations that Nienstedt sexually assaulted individuals, there are multiple lawsuits alleging that he and other church officials failed to investigate, report or discipline priests who abused children.
Nienstedt was interviewed by police in at least one of those cases, which was made public earlier this year. Nienstedt acknowledged during the deposition that he did not inform police when sexual abuse complaints were made against priests in the diocese.
The archbishop also said that he didn’t file a police report after finding pornographic images on Rev. Jonathan Shelley’s computer because he wasn’t able to determine whether the boys in the photos were minors or adults.
Given that priests have historically stepped down while they were being investigated, some priests such as the Rev. Mike Tegeder, pastor of the St. Frances Cabrini Church in Minneapolis, has questioned why Nienstedt has not been asked to step down or opted to do so, like he did during the first investigation.
“People are just tired and discouraged,’’ Tegeder said. “If he would step down, it would be the most healing thing he could do.’’
While Nienstedt’s critics might side with Tegeder, some more conservative Catholics believe that this investigation has been more of a witch-hunt than a proper inquiry. They’ve also expressed concern about the investigation’s impact on the church’s reputation.
Vatican officials are currently monitoring the situation, but haven’t directly commented or ordered any action. However, like Haselberger, many wish someone would intervene in order to preserve the good work that many within the church have done throughout the years.
Talking to the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal, Haselberger hinted that Nienstedt may be trying to hide that he is a gay man, as she says the archbishop had an unprofessional relationship with another priest named Curtis Wehmeyer, who was promoted by Nienstedt, despite having a record of engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior.
Nienstedt has explained that his relationship with Wehmeyer was solely “professional” and “pastoral,” as Wehmeyer was a priest in the diocese where Nienstedt was the archbishop, and maintains that he promoted the priest before he learned Wehmeyer had sexually abused minors.
Haselberger also shared with the St. Paul Pioneer Press that she once saw a note from Wehmeyer thanking Nienstedt for dinner, and said Nienstedt had asked for arrangements to be made for him to visit Wehmeyer while the priest was at an inpatient sex-offender treatment facility prior to his sentencing.
While that may not constitute unusual behavior, Haselberger says the archbishop had not met with Wehmeyer’s victims or their mother, nor had Nienstedt visited two other priests who had been imprisoned while he was archbishop.
Given that only unmarried, celibate men can become priests in the Catholic Church, Father James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College, says there are lots of gay men who are priests. And they’re good priests, too, he says, explaining that just because a priest or person is gay doesn’t mean he is a sexual predator.
Bretzke’s not alone in his stance that priests often identify as homosexuals. According to a book by the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, priesthood has become a gay profession of sorts, with as many as 58 percent of surveyed priests reporting that they self-identified as gay individuals.
The number was reportedly higher among younger priests, possibly because Pope Francis has been much more welcoming to gay people, saying that “if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge” — a departure from Pope Benedict XVI’s order that men with strong gay tendencies not become priests.