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Archbishop Nienstedt apologizes to victims of clergy sex abuse

Archbishop John Nienstedt

As calls for his resignation swelled, Archbishop John Nienstedt issued a public apology this morning to victims of clergy sex abuse, saying that his understanding of the problem has become clearer over the last month.

“As the head of this local Church, I know that the ultimate responsibility here is mine. My heart is heavy with the agony that these errors have caused,” Nienstedt wrote in a column in the official publication of the Archdiocese, the Catholic Spirit.

“To those who have been hurt, to the victims of clergy abuse and their family members, I can only tell you how sorry I am,” he continued. “I realize how damaging such actions are in violating the care of their human dignity. And so, with genuine sorrow, I apologize to all those who have been victimized, whether on my watch or not.”

Nienstedt also pledged to have an outside firm review all clergy files in the interest of “prudent and ongoing disclosure,” and expressed regret that parishioners and, more startlingly, parish priests have lost faith in his leadership.

Parishes criticized leaders publicly

In recent days leaders of traditional, conservative parishes and Catholic institutions have taken the highly unusual step of criticizing Nienstedt and other church leaders publicly.

And the Star Tribune Thursday reported that between 2003 and 2012 the Archdiocese paid out $11 million to cover costs associated with priest misconduct, including direct payments to abuse victims. The sum does not include court judgments.

In a recent bulletin at the Church of St. Bernard, a community anchor in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood for more than a century, Father Mike Anderson defended Jennifer
 Haselberger, the former Archdiocese canon lawyer who blew the whistle on the sex abuse cases now making headlines.

“She has been described by Archdiocesan lawyers as a “disgruntled employee,’” he wrote. “I have a different opinion of her. I think she is a heroic person who could no longer live with a duplicitous system that said publicly that it was following strict guidelines to protect children but privately withheld information and continued to move predators from parish to parish.”

Sex-abuse scandals have plagued the church since his 1983 ordination, Anderson continued, and former Archbishop Harry Flynn played a leadership role in a national meeting a decade ago where U.S. bishops adopted a protocol for the handling of clergy sexual abuse.

‘We were told that there is zero tolerance’

“We were told that there is zero tolerance for sexual abuse by clergy,” Anderson wrote. “There are policies in place that state when an accusation comes to the attention of the chancery, civil officials will be called in to investigate the accusation, and from their investigation decisions would be made concerning the future of the priest. Even today, as the Archbishop responds to the information that has been released, he continues to remind us that there is a zero tolerance policy, and that the protection of children is the highest priority.

“The problem,” Anderson continued, “is that his words ring hollow as the information released indicates that the civil authorities have not been seen as allies in the protection of children, rather they have been kept far away as Archdiocesan officials have intervened in the collection of evidence.”

Over the weekend the pastor at a large, conservative east metro church published a strongly worded call for Nienstedt’s resignation and for the release of a list of 33 priests the Archdiocese considers “credibly accused” of abuse. Parishioners told MinnPost they were proud of the priest.

Clergy elsewhere who asked not to be named said that others are considering following in the footsteps of Father Bill Deziel, pastor at the Church of St. Peter in North St. Paul.

“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 our archdiocesan leaders to deal with the offending priests,” Deziel wrote Sunday in the parish weekly bulletin (PDF). “Things can’t seem to be more twisted and out of hand.”

Neither Deziel nor Anderson responded to interview requests from MinnPost.

The seeming groundswell is highly unusual for such a hierarchical institution, said Charles Reid, a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School. “I was personally surprised to see a priest speaking out, because priests consider themselves to have a round-the-clock vocation,” he said. “They consider the priesthood a fraternity, in terms of brotherhood.”

‘Not your usual external critics’

The decision by Anderson and Deziel — “not your usual external critics” — to speak out is remarkable, Reid added. “You’re really in this situation where you are calling out a superior,” he said. “That’s a serious thing. … You’re taking your superior to the woodshed.”

In terms of priests calling for the resignation of their superior, the lone known precedent is the case of Bernard Law, who resigned his post as Cardinal in 2002 after priests in the Archdiocese of Boston essentially issued a vote of no confidence. The priests’ statement followed the release of damning grand jury testimony, which suggested Law repeatedly covered up clergy abuse.

Nienstedt’s published apology stopped short of acknowledging allegations that church leaders covered up abuse claims. Yet it was much stronger than remarks he made Wednesday to Minnesota Public Radio, which first published Haselberger’s revelations. In an e-mail interview with MPR, the Archbishop said he accepts responsibility for the abuse cases but denied any cover-up.

‘An egregious betrayal of a sacred trust’

“Sexual abuse of anyone is absolutely heinous, and it must be opposed with every fiber of our being,” Nienstedt wrote. “And when it is perpetrated by a member of the clergy, it is an egregious betrayal of a sacred trust. These crimes, these sins, are a failure to be stewards of our pastoral care of God’s people.

“And so, with genuine sorrow, I apologize to all those who have been victimized, whether on my watch or not.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Chris Bjorklund on 10/24/2013 - 10:58 am.

    “…..saying that his understanding of the problem has become clearer over the last month.”

    Is the archbishop claiming to be unaware of the countless revelations of abuse inside his organization over the last twenty-plus years? If so, how does he explain this:

    “And the Star Tribune Thursday reported that between 2003 and 2012 the Archdiocese paid out $11 million to cover costs associated with priest misconduct, including direct payments to abuse victims. The sum does not include court judgments.”

    One wonders whether the archbishop sees his Jamie Dimon-esque cloak of legal protection disintegrating by the hour.

  2. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 10/24/2013 - 12:00 pm.


    Nienstedt’s comments make no sense in light of what we know, including revelations of how much the church has paid out in the last decade or so. I doubt that he did not know about these payouts. Nor do I think he did not know about the abuses, the various transfers, and the coverups.
    I would be more charitable but he has been vicious, in my opinion, in opposing gays (he told one mother that she had to disown her gay son or she would go to hell–anyway, who believes in hell these days? Not even the pope), and has spent thousands on DVDs distributed to the church members on gay marriage and has opposed any deviation from rigid catholic doctrine. He needs to go.
    He also has his religious history all wrong. He should do some studying, although he would probably decide it was Satan–an entity this superstitious man apparently believes in. For starters, he could try reading The Zealot–highly recommended.

  3. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 10/24/2013 - 12:20 pm.

    Not far enough

    The apology needs to be made not just for the actions of the perpretrators, but for the system and hierarchy who hid the crimes. Apologies need to be made not just to the child victims and their families but to the faithful of the Archdiocese who were lied to and continued to have their hard earned money used in cover-ups.

    Before there can be reconciliation there needs to be truth. The Archbishop should invite Jennifer Hasselberg back to share the contents of the basement and other nooks. There needs to be clear enumeration of the evil at all levels, before there can be forgiveness.

    Clearly the Archdiocese will get no money from me until this is resoled!

  4. Submitted by Wilbur Ince on 10/24/2013 - 01:05 pm.

    So far so good

    We see that Archbishop Nienstedt has received the message, he clearly acknowledges the fact that there must be a zero tolerance for abuse.

    Now, we must see clear action on his part to deliver a zero tolerance policy. This will include release of all records law enforcement. It should also include removal of all priests that endanger others.

    Does Archbishop Nienstedt have the courage to remove active duty clergy?

  5. Submitted by Judy Jones on 10/24/2013 - 01:26 pm.

    Apologies just don’t cut it anymore.

    The church officials including Archbishop John Nienstedt, only take action when they are backed into a corner by victims and the media. And then they use the same m.o. as other dioceses who are found to be covering up sex crimes against innocent kids. Hiring more people, using the excuse that they know better now, or saying, “I’m sorry” does not protect kids.

    Actions need to be taken by legislators and law enforcement to hold these church officials responsible. Nienstedt is not going to open the vault, most likely because there is some very incriminating evidence in there.
    The sex abuse and cover up within the church hierarchy is still going on to this day. Cardinals and bishops are still covering up sex crimes against kids, they are still not removing accused predator clergy, and they still are not reporting to law enforcement. Their so called “zero tolerance” policy is not being followed by all the bishops who created it. They don’t have to, because there is no punishment to force the bishops to change their ways of protecting their image and the institution rather than protecting innocent kids. Until they spend time behind bars for their crimes of cover up, nothing will change and children will still be sexually abused within this secret archaic system.
    As long as the “secrets” are still firmly in tact and accused clerics are still be protected nothing has changed.
    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511.
    “SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  6. Submitted by bea sinna on 10/24/2013 - 02:45 pm.

    Instead of all the focus and money he paid demonizing Gay marriage, Nienstedt should have been addressing the demons in his archdiocese.

  7. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 10/24/2013 - 04:25 pm.


    I have been a Catholic for 70 years, I was also a police officer for 21 of those years. I have watched the Catholic church over the years cover up 100’s of child sexual abuse cases. I said when Neinstedt started his huge campaign against gay marriage that it was draw attention away from something else, probably hiding sexual abuse cases. It turns out my gut feeling was right. As far as I am concerned Neinstedt not only needs to be removed as Archbishop, he needs to charged with several felonies, from obstruction of justice, conspiracy, to aiding and abetting in the commission of a felony. As far as I am concerned he is a piece of trash, who caused harm many child victims.

  8. Submitted by Brian Sandberg on 10/24/2013 - 04:58 pm.

    Don’t Let Up

    I’m sure almost all Catholics are revolted and infuriated at the whole mess. I know if I was dropping dough in the collection plate weekly, I’d have a pretty hard time prying my wallet out of my back pocket after learning that they’ve paid out $11 million in settlements, along with the $650,000 to defend traditional marriage.

    Pressure must be increased until he finally resigns, and charges pressed if deemed appropriate. The outside audit is just more lip service, and if he somehow weathers the storm and survives this, it will continue to reflect badly on the entire church and its many fine upstanding members.

    The only way for the RCC to restore credibility is to start playing hardball with the pedophiles and those who protect them, and to honestly and openly cooperate with law enforcement, rather than the standard tactic of evading and stonewalling. It would be so refreshing to just once see a headline say something along the lines of “Accused Child-Molesting Priest in Custody After Tip from Archdiocese….Archbishop Vows Full Cooperation in Investigation”.

  9. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 10/24/2013 - 06:18 pm.

    Thanks, Mr. Kjer

    ..and others here who’ve come down solidly on the side of criminal prosecution. I’m simply baffled by talk of whether the church hierarchy is truly cooperating – this is not the church’s choice! Charges should have been brought long ago, and yes, they should have been brought against Flynn. Enough of this kid-glove treatment of prelates as if we really think they are divinely ordained.

    As for Catholics thinking twice about “dropping dough in the collection plate,” they are not the only ones who have been hurt. Shouldn’t the rest of us taxpayers get back all the money that’s been deducted as charitable contributions? Perhaps we should add racketeering to Mr. Kjer’s list of crimes.

  10. Submitted by neil allen on 10/24/2013 - 08:35 pm.

    apology not accepted

    Who cares if he apologizes? Throw the pedophile protector in jail along with any of his other co-conspirators

  11. Submitted by Wes Davey on 10/24/2013 - 10:09 pm.

    During the 2013 Legislative session Nienstedt and his friends at the Minnesota Catholic Conference strongly opposed the proposed Safe Schools bill – a bill which would have gone a long ways towards ending bullying in our schools, especially bullying directed at vulnerable LGBT youth.

    Their reason for opposing that bill was that they were quite capable of protecting the youth enrolled in Catholic schools. Who would believe such a claim now, even if Nienstedt does the right thing and steps down?

    When the Safe Schools bill comes up again in the 2014 Legislative session, we better not hear any opposition against that bill coming from the Archdiocese, not one peep.

  12. Submitted by Joel Soti on 10/25/2013 - 02:59 pm.

    Nienstedt should resign or be removed

    Shortly after his arrival in St Paul, this man quickly established a reputation for arrogance and callous disregard of the faithful. This latest play of “hiring an outside firm to review our actions” is window dressing at best and cynical deception at worst. The last “outsider” hired to review policies resigned to protest that she was not being heard. As a lifelong and devoted Catholic I have been disheartened by his brand of “my way or the highway” leadership. So many Catholics are angry at him that whatever respect he had is just over. If he has any integrity he will accept that he botched his role here and he will resign. Failing that, our wonderful new Pope Francis should simply and quickly remove Nienstedt from power. I pray that the day come quickly that we get a better Archbishop.

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