Fall 2014, Vol. 15, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 


Current issue:
Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Religion in the News is Dead! Long Live Religion in the News!

The Contraceptive Mandate Marches On

Hell No, I Won't Go 

Ukraine's Orthodox Breakup        

Marriage is Always Complicated in Utah

Breaking Bad in Burma

Evangelicals Wimp Out on Immigration

Pew on Jew

Zen Master in the Garden

The Pope’s Israel Driveby

Noah: The Movie

The Art of RIN





Hell No, I Won't Go  
by Andrew Walsh


Embattled for almost a year over his handling of clerical sexual misconduct, Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis is the latest in a series of Roman Catholic hierarchs whose deep aversion to giving up control of disciplinary processes over priests has extended the church’s struggles with clerical sexual misconduct.

At the end of July, after editorials in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and New York Times called for his resignation, Nienstedt issued a statement saying he “would leave only if the papal nuncio, the pope’s representative in the United States ‘took action’ on his leadership,” the Star Tribune’s Jean Hopfensperger wrote on July 31.

“And I would have to be convinced that my effectiveness to lead the archdiocese was nil,” Nienstedt told the Star Tribune. “And I don’t believe it is. I have strong pockets of support. And other pockets that aren’t supportive.”

In the Twin Cities case, the key accusation was that Nienstedt, his predecessor, Archbishop Harry Flynn, and their senior assistants gave public lip service to the American Catholic bishops’ 2003 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, with its standard of zero tolerance for clerical sexual misconduct, but in practice often ignored its requirements that any priests facing credible accusations be removed from ministry permanently  and that police be informed of all charges of clerical sexual misconduct.

Nienstedt is the third American bishop accused of failing to follow the Charter protocols since 2012. Kansas City Bishop Robert W. Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor for waiting five months before reporting to police that a computer technician had found pornographic images of toddler-aged girls on a priest’s computer, despite the fact that Finn was bound by an even tighter set of reporting requirements negotiated as part of a $10 million settlement with 47 sexual abuse victims.

In 2012, Archbishop John C. Myers of Newark faced similar criticism for failing to supervise a priest who had signed an agreement with prosecutors that banned him for life from working with children. The priest was discovered to be working with children at a parish outside the Newark Archdiocese and New Jersey prosecutors rebuked Myers, saying that the archbishop and his assistants had made no effort to monitor the priest’s work, as they had agreed to do.

Neither Finn nor Myers has been disciplined by the church in any way, although a coadjutor bishop (an assistant bishop with the right to succeed the sitting bishop) was appointed to serve alongside Myers.

Nienstedt’s troubles in Minnesota began on September 25, when Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) aired a long story reported by Madeline Baran about a priest named Curtis Wehmeyer, whose “eight years as a priest are dotted with episodes of risky, sex-fueled behavior—and the leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis knew all about it. Last year, the parish of Blessed Sacrament faced a horror: Wehmeyer was convicted for his sexual abuse of two teenage boys.”

Wehmeyer, Baran reported, kept a recreational vehicle parked outside Blessed Sacrament. “With the shades drawn, Wehmeyer could avoid the obligations of priestly life. He got drunk, smoked pot and looked at child pornography. He also lured to the camper two boys whose mother worked at the parish, plied them with alcohol, turned on pornography and told them to touch themselves. Several times, he touched one of the boys, according to police records.” The abuse continued for two years.

The boys eventually told an aunt, who told a priest, who reported the charges immediately to the chancery, which then called the police. In 2013, Wehmeyer pled guilty and is now serving a prison term of five years. The archdiocese, Baran reported, publicly expressed its regret and offered to support the victims. “They did the right thing,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said in September 2012.

The archdiocese, Baran said, was telling the world that it was following the zero tolerance rules of the Charter. “The reality was far different. This wasn’t the first time Wehmeyer had been in trouble. Top archdiocesan leaders knew of Wehmeyer’s sexual compulsions for nearly a decade but kept him in ministry and failed to warn parishioners, according to canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned in April, and dozens of other interviews and documents.”

Haselberger, who had served as the archdiocese’s chancellor for canonical affairs from 2008 to 2013, proved to be MPR’s key source—a self-described whistleblower who found in the files she maintained a host of violations of the Charter and who failed in her efforts to get her superiors to take remedial action.

In the Wehmeyer case, there was a memo obtained from the St. Paul police from the Rev. Kevin McDonough, former vicar general of the archdiocese for 18 years and still its “delegate for safe environment,” the archdiocesan official with oversight of “all child abuse prevention efforts in the archdiocese.” It advised the archdiocese not to inform Blessed Sacrament employees about Wehmeyer’s past.

In a 2010 MPR interview, McDonough said that the church’s “first obligation is to protect the members of the church…So we ought to be, of course, a hundred times stricter against anyone who could harm especially vulnerable members of our church.” 

At the time, Baran wrote, “McDonough already knew that Wehmeyer had engaged in troubling sexual encounters—that he had approached young men for sex at a bookstore (in 2004) and cruised nearby parks.” The priest had even been evaluated at St. Luke Institute, a Maryland treatment center for priests, but the archdiocese had decided to appoint Wehmeyer pastor of Blessed Sacrament in 2009 anyway.

McDonough advised a colleague not to inform parish employees—a standard Charter precaution—because he believed that Wehmeyer was a gay adult who was not interested in sex with children. “I think you share with me the opinion that he really was not all that interested in an actual sexual encounter (in the bookstore incident), but rather was obtaining some stimulation by ‘playing with fire.’” Disclosure to staff “would only out his sexual identity questions (which, by the way, would be unlikely to surprise any observant person in the parish.”)

Haselberger, the whistleblower, became involved in the Wehmeyer case soon after Nienstedt hired her in 2008. Wehmeyer telephoned her to complain that he wasn’t being formally listed as pastor of Blessed Sacrament. She told MPR that when she opened his personnel file, she saw that there was no background check, even though the diocese had a policy that required background checks for all clergy. She also found documents reporting that Wehmeyer had a sex addiction, “which the archdiocese knew about.”

She wrote a memo to Nienstedt “alerting him to review the file. She also attached a copy of the earlier psychological and sexual assessment of Wehmeyer. The priest’s personnel file included evidence that Wehmeyer had violated the archdiocese’s code of conduct several times.” While she waited for Niestedt’s response, three more complaints about Wehmeyer’s behavior were added to the file—including a report from a campground that Wehmeyer was acting suspiciously with boys, who turned out to be the boys he was later accused of molesting.

“Haselberger assumed that would end Wehmeyer’s career as a priest. It did not,” MPR’s Baran reported. In fact, Wehmeyer was confirmed soon after as pastor of Blessed Sacrament.

As this lengthy recapitulation suggests, Nienstedt did not initiate a policy undermining the Charter but instead continued one that was in place under his predecessor, Archbishop Harry Flynn and his assistants like McDonough. This is worth emphasizing because Flynn chaired the committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that produced the Charter in 2002 and both Flynn and McDonough had national reputations as leaders in the Catholic church’s struggle to recover from the scandal.

McDonough resigned from his position as delegate for safe environment just before the MPR story was aired. His successor as vicar general, the Rev. Peter Laird, resigned a few weeks later. “I am hopeful my decision to step aside at this time, along with the formation of a new task force can help repair the trust of many, especially the victims of abuse,” Laird said in a statement released on the archdiocesan website October 4.

MPR’s story, however, led to further reports of problems, including a case in which a priest had been investigated in 2004 for having 1,300 pornographic images of men on his computer, which had been sold at a parish rummage sale. The Star Tribune’s Baird Helgeson reported on October 27 that Nienstedt had written to Rome in 2012 that an investigator hired by the archdiocese “concluded that many of the images were borderline illegal due to the apparent age of those photographed.” The priest was put on leave, but not reported to the police.

A second story involved McDonough’s 2006 investigation of a priest serving on the law faculty of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in which McDonough cleared the Rev. Michael Keating of charges of sexually abusing an adolescent girl in the late 1990s, the Star Tribune reported. The victim filed a lawsuit in October and Keating immediately took a leave from the university. McDonough and former Archbishop Flynn then resigned from the university’s board of trustees.

“Over the years, I have seen Father McDonough’s name and his actions in the middle of so many of these cases when he chose not to do the right thing,” Jeffrey Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney who has been among the most active victims lawyers in the sexual abuse crisis, told Helgeson, adding that McDonough’s actions and memo reveal someone more concerned with protecting the institutional church than victims and their families. “He persuades everybody he is sincere. But he is often the point person in the cover-up.”

Anderson, who had been engaged in a serious and ultimately successful struggle to persuade the Minnesota legislature to reopen the statute of limitations on charges of sexual abuse of minors, targeted Nienstedt with growing vigor, often with Haselberger’s assistance.

On January 31, for example, Anderson produced for the Star Tribune’s Jean Hopfensperger a memo written by Nienstedt in June 2012 to his vicar general authorizing Laird to investigate Curtis Wehmeyer. The memo, acquired through the legal discovery process, laid down “stipulations” for the conduct of the inquiry, Hopfensperger wrote. Such as: “Father Laird is to take care that such an investigation does nothing to harm Father Wehmeyer’s name or to violate his right to privacy.”

Nienstedt’s first substantial public reaction to the crisis that broke in September came on December 16,  a few days after the archdiocese had, after lengthy resistance, released a list of 32 priests who had been “credibly accused” of sexual misconduct over the previous several decades. Some were dead, many had been suspended from ministry in the 1980s and 1990s and then had their priestly faculties removed permanently in 2002 and 2003, after the Charter was adopted. But a number of priests who had been credibly accused had remained in limited service despite the requirements of the Charter.

“When I arrived here seven years ago,” Nienstedt told reporters at Our Lady of Grace Church in suburban Edina December 16, “one of the first things I was told was that this whole issue of clerical sexual abuse had been taken care of and I didn’t have to worry about it.

“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 they story started to break at the end of September, I was as surprised as anyone.”

The archdiocese then hired an outside firm to review its files for all evidence of allegations of clerical misconduct and appointed a special commission of lay experts to review the archdiocese’s history of dealing with abuse allegations and to recommend improvement.

Few people—and Jennifer Haselberger least of all—were receptive to Nienstedt’s protestations in Edina. Haselberger told St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario that she “almost fell out of her chair.”

“To see an archbishop, who had recently celebrated Mass and was still vested and hold his crosier, lie to the faithful in such a boldfaced manner was heartbreaking to me,” she later testified in an affidavit. “When he said those things, he knew he was lying,” Haselberger told Rosario in July. “And he knew that I knew he was lying. And he knew that anybody who was associated with this work and knew him, knew he was lying.”

Haselberger’s role in the current crisis suggests that even if the Minnesota Roman Catholic hierarchy hasn’t wanted to change its internal process of handling sexual abuse complaints, cover-ups are harder these days. People like Haselberger, lay employees committed to strict enforcement of the Charter, are now important figures in the church’s administrative structure. Bishop Finn’s indictment in Kansas City can also be traced to the complaints of employees at a parochial school who had all received diocesan training on preventing sexual abuse and who were alarmed at the behavior of their pastor.

Soon after the Edina statement, Nienstedt had to step down briefly, when an old allegation surfaced that he had touched a teen-age boy on the buttocks during a confirmation ceremony in St. Paul. St. Paul police soon reported that their investigation revealed no crime.

Nevertheless, by spring the story was accelerating. On April 15, the task force studying the archdiocese’s handling of clerical sexual misconduct filed a report calling for “major reforms in how the archdiocese responds,” the Star Tribune reported. “The archdiocese concentrated too much power in one or two individuals to make decisions regarding allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors,” the report said. As a result, accused priests, “were not subject to adequate oversight nor their decision and actions subject to monitoring and audit.”

The task force described an institutional culture in which archdiocesan officials charged with victim advocacy rarely met with top administrators and little communication took place between high ranking officials about misconduct charges. There was no centralized record-keeping about misconduct accessible to decision makers, and more vigor about investigations was needed.

One important reason that the Minnesota scandal broke in 2013 was the state legislature’s passage of the Child Victims Act, which took effect in May. It gave child sexual abuse victims who are over 24 years of age an additional three years in which to file suits against abusers. The change to the state’s statute of limitation on crimes against children was vigorously resisted by Minnesota’s Catholic dioceses but supported by a variety of activists, including Jeffrey Anderson.

When the new law took effect, Anderson began to file new suits by victims, most notably a suit on behalf of “John Doe 1” in Ramsey County (St. Paul) charging the Archdiocese of St. Paul and the Diocese of Winona with creating a public nuisance by failing to act against an accused priest, the Rev. Thomas Adamson, who was first accused of sexual abuse of children in the 1980s. 

As is other American cities, civil suits against dioceses have led to massive disclosure of church files (at least 60,000 documents from the Archdiocese of St. Paul so far) and to depositions of church leaders under oath.

This spring, Flynn, Nienstedt, McDonough, and Laird all testified in depositions conducted by Anderson and his partners. The depositions were all made public by early summer. Transcripts and films of the depositions are on news websites all over Minnesota and on the archdiocesan website as well.

The most dramatic development of these legal proceedings came in early July, with the release of a 107-page affidavit by Haselberger that laid out her response to the depositions of the hierarchy. The Star-Tribune’s Hopfensperger summarized the affidavit this way on July 16: “Whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger described the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as a place where child abusers were given repeated opportunities to remain in the priesthood, where ‘monitoring’ was lax and where investigations often favored priests.”

Retired archbishop Flynn (who led the archdiocese from 1995 to 2007) repeatedly told Anderson in his deposition that he could “no longer recall basic information about the sex abuse cases that faced the archdiocese, including the names and numbers of accused priests, had not gone to parishes where priests were accused of abuse, had not met most of the priests accused, nor called police to report any charges against priests.”

In the Star-Tribune’s April 23 account of Nienstedt’s deposition, the archbishop said he was not aware “that known sex abusers were working at the archdiocese during his tenure, nor did he track exactly which priests were being monitored.”

Hopfensperger and Chao Xiong reported that Nienstedt said he had never asked to see a list of credibly accused priests, something the Charter requires all diocese to maintain, “nor did he press for parishes to be told about the presence of clergy members who were being monitored because of previous child sexual misconduct.”

“I believe that we felt that we could monitor the situation without making a total disclosure to the people,” Nienstedt said, “adding that he no longer feels that way.”

At the end of May, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that the Rev. Peter Laird testified in his deposition that he had twice suggested the previous fall to Nienstedt that he resign. Nienstedt did not respond and Laird himself resigned on October 3. In his deposition he said the archdiocese was not attempting to evade either civil or religious law, but that leaders in the archdiocese “have a responsibility to be accountable for decisions whenever they take place.”

As for McDonough, the Star Tribune reported on April 25 that he acknowledged in his deposition that during his tenure as vicar general “church practice allowed priests who had sexually abused children to remain in the priesthood, usually in jobs where they would be less likely to have contact with children.”        

“In the period from 1988 until 2002, men who had committed crimes against young people were still retained in what we understood to be administrative capacities in the archdiocese,” McDonough testified, “and were still allowed to practice as priests, for example, saying mass to convents of sisters. And after 2002 (when the Charter was adopted)…that was no longer permitted.”

By the spring of 2014, the archdiocese had expanded its list of credibly accused priests to 54. At least six priests who had been found credibly accused were still in some form of ministry or contract employment. In August, the figure rose to 103, with no new names disclosed because the archdiocese considered many of the allegations not credible.

Haselberger’s devastating affidavit was released at the beginning of July. In it she accused Flynn and McDonough of consciously violating the Charter, canon law, and Minnesota laws that required them to report charges of sexual abuse, and said that Laird and Nienstedt strenuously avoided her attempts to force them to deal with cases of abuse documented in church files. The Pioneer Press headlined its story on the affidavit, “Whistleblower accuses Twin Cities archdiocese of host of misdeeds related to clergy abuse.”

Soon after she began to work in St. Paul in 2008, Haselberger said she had received a copy of a letter that Flynn had written to the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Flynn wrote to Cardinal Angelo Amato, “was not employing the prescribed processes against priests who had sexually abused minors, preferring instead to secure the priests’ ‘voluntary compliance’ with the restrictions of the Charter…as that means of proceeding was ‘less harsh’ and ‘less punitive’ toward the offending priests.”

She described an administrative climate where officials like McDonough and Laird were preoccupied with the fear of litigation and didn’t want to maintain lists of accused priests. “The only argument that I ever heard against publishing the list that did not include the words ‘litigation’ and ‘Jeff Anderson’ was that doing so would be unfair to the ‘dead guys’ who may have been falsely accused,” she wrote.

She complained that church investigations of charges “always ended with less clarity than we began with.” She added that in-house counsel Andrew Eisenzimmer avoided reading priests’ files and “discouraged her from doing so, telling her to ‘stop looking under rocks.’”

Investigations were not pursued vigorously under Flynn and Nienstedt, she said, charging that high administrators “preferred to remain ignorant when it came to abusive priests.”  While Laird was vicar general, one of his seminary classmates, the Rev. Joseph Gallatin, was charged with misconduct. Gallatin’s file included a report “of the sexual nature of his contact with a West Virginia boy” and documented Gallatin’s “admitted sexual attraction to boys as young as 12.” Haselberger said Laird wouldn’t read the whole file and insisted there was no cause for concern.

“I literally followed Father Laird out of the building one evening with those highlighted documents in my hand, saying if he didn’t have time to read the whole documents, he could at least read the highlighted remarks,” Haselberger said.

Haselberger had first worked for the St. Paul archdiocese in the early 2000s, serving on the Marriage Tribunal and as advocate for the archdiocesan Commission on Women. She left that job, she said, because she discovered that a priest serving on the marriage tribunal had been credibly accused with having an affair with a married woman that led to the birth of a child.

She returned to serve as chancellor for canonical affairs in 2008 because she heard that Nienstedt had accepted McDonough’s resignation as vicar general. She noted that her experiences in the interim as canonical advisor to Bishop Samuel J. Acquila of Fargo, North Dakota (now archbishop of Denver) from 2005 to 2008 showed her a different side of the church. Acquila, she said, enforced the Charter vigorously and fully.

Haselberger’s accusations received a muted response from the archdiocese. Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens released a statement saying that Haselberger’s “recollections are not always shared by others within the archdiocese,” but that her experience “highlights the importance of ongoing constructive dialogue and reform aimed at insuring the safety of children.”

On July 14, MPR’s Madeline Baran presented an hour-long documentary, “Betrayed by Silence,” which laid out the history of clerical sexual abuse in the St. Paul archdiocese, dating back decades. Informed by Haselberger, thousands of documents, and dozens of interviews, it offered a devastating portrait of cover-up and inaction.

“For decades, the archbishops who led the Catholic archdiocese in the Twin Cities maintained that they were doing everything they could to protect children from priests who wanted to rape them,” Baran’s report began. “Reporters picked up those assurances and repeated them without question. Police and prosecutors took the assurances at face value. Parents believed the assurances and trusted priests with their children.”

“But the assurances were a lie, and the archbishops knew it. Three of them—John Roach, Harry Flynn, and John Nienstedt—participated in a cover-up that pitted the finances and power of the church against victims who dared to come forward and tell their stories.”

Haselberger’s affidavit and “Betrayed by Silence” triggered editorials in the Star Tribune and the New York Times calling for Nienstedt to resign. “Hundreds of American priests have been forced from service because of pedophile crimes, but the parallel need for accountability among those who covered up the scandal has been shamefully avoided,” the Times wrote on July 18. 

“Today, with sadness, this newspaper joins that call,” the Star Tribune editorialized. “For the sake of one of the state’s most valued institutions and the Minnesotans whose lives it touches, Nienstedt’s service at the archdiocese should end now.”

If Nienstedt didn’t have enough trouble on his hands, more was arriving. On July 1, Grant Gallicho reported in his dotCommonweal blog that Nienstedt was “being investigated for ‘multiple allegations’ of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other men.” His source was Jennifer Haselberger, who had just been interviewed by attorneys from the Minneapolis law firm Greene Espel, who were working for the archdiocese investigating allegations made by others.

“Based on my interview with Greene Espel—as well as conversations with other interviewees—I believe that the investigators received about ten sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety on the part of the archbishop dating from his time as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as Bishop of New Ulm, and while coadjutor and archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” Haselberger told Gallicho. “What’s more, he also stands accused of retaliating against those who refused his advances or otherwise questioned his conduct.”

Gallicho reported that Greene Espel had been hired by Nienstedt early in 2014 and that he and auxiliary bishops Cozzens and Lee Piche had flown to Washington to report the allegations to apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the pope’s official representative in the United States.

Nienstedt’s response was vigorous to Haselberger’s allegation. “I have never engaged in sexual misconduct and certainly not made any sexual advances toward anyone,” he said. “The allegations are a decade old or more, prior to my service as archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis.” They had been investigated before and he called the allegations “personal attacks against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same sex marriage.”

Haselberger said the lawyers from Greene Espel asked her questions about whether Nienstedt had an “improper relationship” with the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer. “Father Curtis Wehmeyer was an archdiocesan priest and I was his archbishop,” Nienstedt retorted. Gallicho said Nienstedt “characterized his relationship with Wehmeyer as ‘professional’ and ‘pastoral.’”

In August, Greene Espel turned in its report to the archdiocese, which has not yet been made public. Journalists began picking over the vast corpus of archdiocesan records released in the John Doe 1 case and reporting on new suits being filed.

On August 14, MPR carried a report that the archdiocese had settled a suit filed by John Jaker, which charged the Rev. Tom Stitts with sexual abuse in 1971, when Jaker was an 11-year-old altar boy in St. Paul. Stitts, who died in 1985, had been accused of sexual abuse by a dozen victims. He served in a total of five parishes in the 1960s and 1970s. The suit is the first one filed under the Minnesota Child Victims Act to be settled.

The financial settlement was not disclosed but Stitts’ entire personnel file is now posted MPR’s website.

“The vicar general, Father Charles Lachowitzer, was present at the negotiations of the settlement and was able to hear the victim’s story and to apologize on behalf of the archdiocese,” Bishop Cozzens said in a statement. “And that was an important aspect of this settlement. And we regret that it took so long for the victim’s story to be heard.”

It seems unlikely, however, that the last word from Minnesota has been heard yet.


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