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Archbishop Nienstedt apologizes to victims of clergy sex abuse

“As the head of this local Church, I know that the ultimate responsibility here is mine,” Archbishop John Nienstedt wrote in a column in the Catholic Spirit.

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.

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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.”