The Detroit Free Press is running a story this morning about retired Archbishop John Nienstedt which is peppered with misunderstandings and factual inaccuracies. The article by Jennifer Bowman apparently originated with the Battle Creek Enquirer; but I would insist that the Free Press, whose reporters saw firsthand Archbishop Nienstedt’s kindly leadership when he was an auxiliary bishop in Detroit, has a responsibility to vet the articles which appear on its pages.
For starters, the headline reads “Controversial Ex-Priest Now Serving in Battle Creek.”
Please allow me to clarify: Archbishop Nienstedt is not an “ex-priest.” He is a “retired archbishop.” His resignation from office does not erase his standing in the Roman Catholic Church and he is entitled to the respect due an archbishop.
For that matter, in all the world there is no such thing as a Roman Catholic “ex-priest.” The Church teaches that the Sacrament of Ordination confers upon the soul of the recipient an indelible mark. There are, to be accurate, “laicized priests”–priests who, due to misconduct or a perceived pull away from their vocation or some other reason, have been returned to the lay state. These non-active priests may not present themselves as priests, may not wear the Roman collar, may not celebrate Mass or other sacraments. They do, however, remain Catholic; they may receive Holy Communion and may participate in parish life, as can any lay person.
Archbishop Nienstedt, for the record, has not been “laicized” (returned to the lay state). His case has been investigated by the Church, and it was determined that he acted without fault. His resignation from his position in the Twin Cities was, as he explained to parishioners at Battle Creek’s St. Philip Catholic Church, where he is temporarily assisting during the absence of the pastor, “in order for the local church to have a new beginning as they come out of bankruptcy” and not because of something he had done wrong.
Bowman’s lack of Catholic sensibility returns when she says that Archbishop Nienstedt “led” the Mass. Priests don’t “lead” the Mass, Jennifer. They “celebrate” Mass. They “say” Mass.
But the real problem I found in the article was that Jennifer Bowman had relied for her non-story not on the files of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, from which Archbishop Nienstedt had resigned; and not on the Saint Paul Police Department, where an investigation exonerated him of any wrongdoing; and not on the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which actually thanked Archbishop Nienstedt for his excellent handling of the abuse crisis in his archdiocese.
No, Bowman relied on information provided by SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. That organization, I believe, played a vital role early in the clergy abuse crisis in bringing together victims and challenging the Church. However, they have long since eroded into a shrill Church-shaming, money-seeking organization. They must continue to stoke the embers of victimhood and blame, because their very existence depends upon elongating the perennial victimhood of their members.
She also accepted uncritically the reports of liberal media outlets such as Minnesota Public Radio.
I wrote back in 2013 about the case against Archbishop Nienstedt. Here (below) is that report, detailing efforts by major news outlets to drive public opinion against the spiritual leader of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese. The rancor originated with pro-gay and pro-same sex marriage activists, and the media simply acted as their shills. Jennifer Bowman, the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Detroit Free Press continue to spread that old story today.
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Look, I’m as concerned as the next person about the safety of children. I believe sexual perpetrators should be prosecuted and imprisoned. I think that Church leadership should take strong measures to ensure that priests who betray their sacred trust are removed from ministry.
The media can play an important role in safeguarding the public trust, when Church and community leaders fail to do their job.
What happened in the Twin Cities, though, went far beyond “safeguarding” and slid, instead, into manipulation and sensationalism and character assassination. In one report after another, Archbishop John Nienstedt was accused of obstruction of justice in a case involving alleged sexual misconduct committed by Father Jonathan Shelley, who remained on a leave of absence while the investigation continued.
The press coverage was so incriminating that the St. Paul Police Department took the unusual step of scheduling a press conference to contradict a KSTP report, and to assure that Archbishop Nienstedt was not under investigation, and was not guilty of shielding a guilty priest. According to Howie Padilla, a police spokesperson, the report which aired November 12 was “inaccurate.” Catholic News Live explained:
St. Paul Police took the unusual step of calling a press conference to rebut information contained in a KSTP media report that falsely claimed Archbishop John Nienstedt and Father Peter Laird are the focus of a criminal investigation for obstruction of justice in a case involving alleged sexual misconduct committed by Father Jonathan Shelley.
Howie Padilla, a police spokesman, called the report, which aired Nov. 12, “inaccurate.”
“As we stand here today, they’re not being investigated,” he said.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis contacted the station’s executive producer before the report aired to let them know the report was inaccurate, but the station opted to air it anyway.
The archdiocese provided the following information to the station before the report aired.
“The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is aware that the St. Paul Police have reopened their investigation into the Fr. Jon Shelley case,” the statement said. “We will cooperate fully, as we did in the police’s previous 7-month investigation that found no evidence of child pornographic material. We take very seriously matters of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. We encourage anyone who has been a victim of such sexual abuse to report it to police and to the Archdiocese.
“Any inference or suggestion that the Archdiocese withheld evidence or obstructed justice simply is inaccurate.”
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I’m not sure where the media distortion started. Was it a misleading report from local TV station KSTP which generated the scandal? An article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune which painted Archbishop John Nienstedt with the broad brush of “protector of the guilty”?
In any case, the media (in Minneapolis-St. Paul and then, across the nation) posted incendiary articles accusing Archbishop Nienstedt of willfully failing to act to implement tough policies to protect the young, as mandated by the USCCB and local law enforcement. Left-leaning activist groups which exist to lobby for tired positions in defense of same-sex marriage and women priests used this opportunity to seek the resignation of their faithful, conservative archbishop. Hundreds of picketers and protestors marched in front of the cathedral and the archdiocesan offices. Even donors fell prey to the misguided reporting, threatening to withhold support for archdiocesan projects until new leadership was in place.
The negative publicity was far-reaching, with the result that public sentiment focused on removing their spiritual leader from his post. Just a few examples of the assault against the Twin Cities’ archbishop:
- On October 14 Beth Hawkins, writing for the Minneapolis Post, asked, “Could Archbishop Nienstedt face charges or lose his job?”
- On October 23, the Star-Tribune reported that Father Bill Deziel, pastor of the 6,000-member Church of St. Peter, used his church’s Sunday bulletin to call for a “do-over” of archdiocesan leadership.The Star-Tribune quoted Father Deziel:
“When things get this bad,” Deziel wrote to his parishioners, “sometimes a fresh start is needed for all involved.” Such a change, he said, “could get us moving again with all that Christ calls us to do.”
KSTP quoted Father Deziel:
“These accounts of priest abuse and misconduct are disturbing, yet even more disturbing to many of the faithful is the apparent lack of good judgment and common sense on the part of archdiocesan leaders to deal with offending priests.”
- On the same date, October 23, KSTP reported on others whose dissatisfaction has reached the boiling point:
Local attorney Thomas Lyons says he’s a member of the Church of St. Peter. He says dissatisfaction with church response has boiled over, “At some point the rage rises to the level that you have to express that this is not acceptable. I don’t know who is advising the bishop!”
Lyons says Archbishop Nienstedt does not meet the new Pope Francis’ high standards, “Corruption, worldliness, arrogance, vanity and pride, and that’s all put together in Nienstedt. He should resign for the purpose of allowing the Pope, who has this high standard, to appoint someone for that position.”
Father Mike Tegeder from St. Frances Cabrini Church in Minneapolis says Nienstedt has demonstrated a failure of leadership, “It’s really disappointing and scandalous when the Archbishop drops the ball because the rest of us are doing the very best we can.”
Tegeder calls for Archbishop Nienstedt to speak publicly about the on-going scandal and what the church intends to do to make changes and begin healing, “I’m open to an explanation but it has to come from the archbishop, and it has to come from him in an open way. It can’t be a press release, it can’t be a newspaper article in ‘The Catholic Spirit,’ his paper, he has to stand before us.”
- On October 24, the Minnesota-based radical action group Catholic Coalition for Church Reform published a statement demanding that Archbishop Nienstedt step down from the leadership role in the local church. “We are doing this,” they said, “because we do not see how the Archdiocese can be united in its mission under his leadership.” The group also sent a letter to the U.S. Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó, asking him to seek recommendations for a leader from all the people of the Archdiocese–ordained and lay, as well as men and women religious. “People are more likely,”they said, “to trust a leader in whose selection they have had a voice.”
- On October 29, Minnesota Public Radio reported that a St. Paul, MN pastor, Father Stephen O’Gara of Church of the Assumption, had called for the archbishop’s resignation. Father O’Gara said in a homily,
“He needs to stand before us and explain himself. Only then will we have the respect called to his office. It’s about arrogance, and we all fall victim to arrogance in some degree or in some place in our lives. But this is more. This is not some small matter. This is a big deal. It’s the first time, I must say, in 69 years that I’m embarrassed to be Catholic.”
- On November 8, Fr. Michael Tegeder, a dissident priest who has frequently clashed with the archbishop on homosexuality and other issues, wrote a letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune requesting that Archbishop Nienstedt “prayerfully consider stepping down from his office.” Calling the archbishop’s support for the marriage amendment a “misguided crusade,” he suggested that the archbishop’s resignation would be “healing for our state” and “would show some magnanimity on
- On November 13, the left-wing group People in the Pews published a call for Archbishop Nienstedt’s resignation. Their letter read, in part,
We believe that now is the time for healing, which begins with your resignation. Quite simply, the trust and confidence you once enjoyed are gone and will not return. You can no longer lead because we can no longer follow. We believe our energies and financial resources can no longer be spent defending the indefensible.
And major donors, too, have accepted at face value the KSTP report. According to the Free Republic, one of those donors, James R. Frey, has withdrawn his financial support until the archdiocese has new leadership. Frey is 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, according to the Free Republic, have personally given to previous archdiocesan appeals and helped pay down debt at the Cathedral of St. Paul. But that has changed: “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.”
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But not everyone sees the events in a negative light.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights actually thanked Archbishop Nienstedt for his excellent handling of the abuse crisis in his archdiocese. The Catholic League, in a September 24 release, said:
On Sunday, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced it was putting a priest on leave after a woman said he inappropriately touched her. The priest denies the accusation; the allegation was reported to the police. Yesterday, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) ran a story on a previous case: it said the archdiocese knew of the misconduct of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer before he abused two boys in 2010.
In early June 2012, the mother of the abused boys told a priest about the molestation. He urged her to call the police. On June 14, she provided details and was told to report this to the archdiocese. On June 19, she met with officials and one of the boys was questioned. On June 20, the police were contacted; the authorities were told that the priest would be relieved of his duties on June 21. He was. In September, the Ramsey County Attorney commended the archdiocese saying, “They did the right thing.”
Some critics are saying the archdiocese should have dealt with Wehmeyer before the abuse occurred. In 2004, three years after being ordained, Wehmeyer made sexually suggestive remarks to two men, 19 and 20, but they never complained. The archdiocese found out anyway, and sent the priest to St. Luke Institute for counseling. Two years later, he was found cruising in an area known for gay sex; no law was violated. In 2009, he was arrested for drunk driving. Fr. Kevin McDonough, a former vicar general, said last week that “[N]othing, nothing, nothing in this man’s behavior known to us would have convinced any reasonable person that he was likely to harm kids.”
A recent article in the StarTribune called into question the archdiocese’s cooperation in the summer of 2012 with St. Paul Police in the Curtis Wehmeyer case. These allegations are both unfortunate and unfounded, as we fully cooperated with the police investigation that ultimately resulted in Wehmeyer’s current prison sentence.
On September 21, 2012, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was quoted on MPR saying that the archdiocese “…did the right thing. As soon as they got the complaint from the boys’ mother, they immediately called the police. Then they took immediate action and removed him from his position at the parish. That was the right thing, and we appreciate that in law enforcement.”
On September 24, 2013, Howie Padilla of the St. Paul Police was quoted in the Pioneer Press saying, “ … the archdiocese was helpful in the initial case against Wehmeyer.”
These quotes reaffirm that the archdiocese was cooperative in this case.
We continue to encourage anyone who suspects abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult within Church ministry—or any setting including the home or school—to first contact law enforcement. Any act of abuse against a minor or vulnerable adult is reprehensible and morally repugnant and we will not tolerate it.
Our first priority is to create and maintain safe environments where the Gospel of Jesus Christ can flourish. This means creating an environment for and implementing productive steps to promote a healthy clergy.
We deeply regret the pain caused by sexual abuse by members of the clergy, and we remain committed to protecting children and vulnerable adults, and promoting healing for victims. Anyone having knowledge of sexual abuse should call the proper authorities and is encouraged to notify the archdiocese’s Victim Assistance Coordinator at 651-291-4497.
Can you see anything wrong with this handling of the case in question? Can you?
Neither can I.