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Could Archbishop Nienstedt face charges or lose his job?

Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis/David Hrbacek
Once unheard of, criminal prosecutions of individual priests have become more common over the last decade as U.S. church officials have struggled with an avalanche of sex abuse scandals.

As controversy deepens over what top officials of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis knew about allegations of priest sex abuse and child pornography, some observers of the Catholic Church here have begun questioning how far the scandal could go.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has called for a grand jury to investigate what it is calling a cover-up by top church officials, including Archbishop John Nienstedt.   

“Law enforcement is trained to investigate crime,” said Bob Schwiderski, SNAP’s Minnesota director. “That’s what we need here.”

Could repercussions really be that far-reaching? Could a sitting prelate face charges? And if not, at what point do church leaders lose too much credibility to remain in their posts?

Criminal prosecutions more common

Once unheard of, criminal prosecutions of individual priests have become more common over the last decade as U.S. church officials have struggled with an avalanche of sex abuse scandals. But until recently, their superiors haven’t been taken to court for shielding them from public view.

At least one high-ranking church official lost his post. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002, days after being subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating “possible criminal violations by church officials who supervised priests accused of sexually abusing children.” After Massachusetts authorities declined to prosecute, Law was transferred to a Vatican post. 

In June 2012, Msgr. William J. Lynn, a cardinal’s aide in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was convicted of child endangerment at trial and sentenced to three to six years in prison. Essentially the archdiocese’s personnel director, Lynn covered up abuse allegations by transferring predatory priests to unsuspecting parishes.

Last September, the bishop of Kansas City, Missouri, Robert Finn, was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to report a priest who took hundreds of pornographic pictures of young girls. He was sentenced to two years of supervised probation.

The difference between the era of the Law case and the recent convictions is the existence of clear ground rules, said Charles Reid Jr., a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School. “There’s an important distinction between our situation and Law’s,” he said. “Law was not operating in a time when we had clear standards.”

Law’s transfer to the Vatican — where he has since essentially been retired — is “very rare,” Reid hastened to add. “This is so touchy,” he said. “Cardinal Law did not break any laws, but when his witness testimony became public, his credibility was so damaged he had to be moved.”

2002 child-protection charter

In 2002, as the Law case was brewing, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, better known as the Dallas norms. In fact, former St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn chaired the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, which drafted the policies.

“There is still a long road ahead of us,” Flynn was quoted by the New York Times in 2003. “Our commitment has not wavered. We have made a pledge to our people and to the people of this nation and especially to the vulnerable ones, and we will keep that pledge.”

Under them, “You have an obligation to conform to civil law, the law on the books, American law,” said Reid. “Bishops have the same obligation to report. The Dallas norms state a very clear obligation to cooperate with police and prosecutors.”

The rules also oblige church leaders to disclose anything in the history of a priest or deacon being transferred “to indicate that he would be a danger to children or young people.”

Concerns about such reporting requirements are at the heart of recent controversies here.

The archdiocese’s former top canon lawyer, who resigned in April, says she made multiple efforts to bring troubling evidence involving problem priests to the attention of her superiors. In the wake of her revelations, St. Paul Police and the Ramsey County attorney are reviewing the claims.

In one of the cases, Jennifer Haselberger went to police herself after waiting a year for archdiocesan officials to report the discovery of sexually explicit images on a priest’s computer that appeared to contain underage boys.

In the other, the archdiocese fielded complaints about a priest’s sexual indiscretions and inappropriate contact with youth for a decade but kept him in ministry. Curtis Wehmeyer pleaded guilty last summer to sexual abuse of two boys and possession of child pornography.

A new case surfaces

Over the weekend, a new case involving alleged priest misconduct has surfaced.

Lawyer Jeff Anderson plans to file a complaint Monday morning in Ramsey County District Court accusing the Rev. Michael J. Keating, a University of St. Thomas professor, of allegedly sexually abusing a Twin Cities-area girl more than a decade ago. Keating has taken a voluntary leave of absence from his duties. Anderson said his client reported Keating’s actions to the archdiocese in 2006.

Since 2005, the church here has required all archdiocesan, parish and school employees, as well as all volunteers who have contact with minors, to attend safe environment training. Operated by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, the VIRTUS trainings cover the requirement to report suspected abuse to civil authorities.

“They’re committed publicly to following this,” said Reid. “The important thing is the archdiocese has bound itself for the last eight to 10 years.”

Norms notwithstanding, Flynn did not turn over the images found on the computer of Rev. Jonathan Shelley in 2004, choosing instead to conduct an internal investigation and then to place the evidence in an archive in the basement of the chancery.

Worries about legal ‘exposure’

A year and a half ago, according to a series of exhaustive, explosive interviews with Minnesota Public Radio, Haselberger discovered the file and began pressing for action. After a number of months, Nienstedt drafted a letter to the Vatican noting that the images were found during Flynn’s tenure and expressing apprehension that turning them over to civil authorities “could expose the Archdiocese, as well as myself, to criminal prosecution.”

He did not send the letter, however. And in January, he accepted the recommendation of the vicar in charge of the church’s child-safety program to return Shelley to ministry. Haselberger went to police, who first closed the case but reopened it last week when new evidence appeared available.

Prosecutors in both Ramsey and Washington counties have said they want to look into the cases. Shelley and his lawyer have both maintained his innocence.

Clergy are among those required to report abuse or sexual abuse of minors by Minnesota law, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law. They are compelled to report abuse they learn of that is either ongoing or occurred within the last three years.

The statute, 626.556, has a provision that allows the criminal prosecution of mandated reporters who fail to act. Failure to report is a misdemeanor, unless the person has knowledge that the same perpetrator has abused two or more children, when it then becomes a gross misdemeanor.

Whether the statute would apply if Shelley were found to possess child porn is unclear, said Sampsell-Jones. In the law, sex abuse is defined as subjection of a child to any act constituting rape, prostitution or use in child pornography.

Church officials could also have potential liability under rarely used obstruction-of-justice laws or for “harboring, concealing, aiding or assisting” an offender — a felony charge that is also rarely pursued.

Insofar as the possibility of a grand-jury investigation — as was done in Kansas City — a prosecutor’s decision to empanel one to consider the claims would likely be strategic. Prosecutors charge suspects directly, of course, but must be able to convince the judge at a preliminary hearing that there is enough probable cause to move forward.

A grand jury, by contrast, can subpoena evidence and call witnesses in secret, effectively allowing prosecutors to assemble a case behind closed doors.

Although archdiocesan officials say recent personnel changes are unrelated, the barrage of headlines has been followed by staffing changes and by several conciliatory statements from the archbishop.

On Thursday, Nienstedt appointed Reginald Whitt, a Dominican priest and professor at St. Thomas’ law school, as episcopal vicar, giving him authority to “assume full responsibility for all issues related to clergy sexual misconduct” and asking him to name a lay task force to make recommendations for specific actions.

Half of the six task force members have specific expertise in investigating and responding to sex abuse, including computer forensics. They can ask Whitt to attend meetings but are empowered to operate independently of him.

Calling Whitt a close friend, Reid said he was encouraged by his appointment: “He is very good, and a very strong-willed individual, and I trust him a lot.” 

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/14/2013 - 11:02 am.

    Get rid of the celibacy requirement for priests

    The idea of celibacy for Catholic priests is probably the root of all the child abuse issues that are being discussed. Why it is still a requirement is troubling.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/14/2013 - 01:50 pm.

      Is there a celebacy requirement

      for public school teachers? Because, you know, I can match you story for story of a priest abusing kids with a school teacher abusing kids. Usually married school teachers.

    • Submitted by Susanne Wissink on 10/14/2013 - 03:25 pm.

      Causation vs correlation

      Celibacy does not cause pedophilia or child abuse. While not all Catholic priests are pedophiles, it is probably reasonable to assume that pedophiles would be drawn to priesthood in the Catholic church. Where else can you have unfettered access to children, incontestable authority, and an infrastructure of accomplices that shield the pedophile from prosecution?

      Anyone who personally failed to put the welfare of a child ahead of the organization is guilty of participating in the conspiracy to abuse the child. That includes the pedophile and any one who knew of, or suspected, the child abuse or covered it up.

      Could Archbishop Nienstedt face charges? It is a matter of law; investigate the criminal matter to see if he participated in the conspiracy to break laws. If he participated or helped cover it up, charge him.

      Should Archbishop Nienstedt lose his job? It is a matter for the organization to decide. Whatever the organization decides will have a direct effect of whether pedophiles are drawn to priesthood in the Catholic church.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/14/2013 - 04:06 pm.

      Patently Absurd

      The majority of men who sexually abuse children are married, and presumably have access to sex. So lack of ready access to sex is no more related to preying on children than it is to the rape of adult women.

      Catholic priests abuse children at the same rates as any other profession, be it accountants, car sales men, or dentists. Focusing on one profession does a real disservice to our children, when we need to watch people from all walks of life.

      Celibacy is not forced on anyone. Men who chose the priesthood know they are also choosing celibacy.

      I also resent the supposition that men are animals; that we are slaves to our sexual desires and we cannot control them.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/14/2013 - 07:18 pm.

        You ANIMAL You!

        Actually men are indeed animals. In fact all humans are animals, not plants or minerals. Although in the case of my brother-in-law I have to wonder if he isn’t a potted geranium.

        The main difference between priests and accountants, car salesmen, and dentists is that only the first one has unfettered access to children, a position of authority in society, and a parent organization that actively works to cover up its employee’s misdeeds. Show me an accountant that simply gets transferred to another position in the firm rather than arrested and then you might–just might–have a point when comparing the two segments of society.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/14/2013 - 08:54 pm.

        Our sexual desires

        are one of many factors influencing our behavior.
        They do not by themselves force us to do anything, but in conjunction with other factors make make the difference in acting them out.
        As for people being animals (I assume that you include women as well as men), there’s a Mr. Darwin (a noted clergyman) who would like to speak to you.

        • Submitted by Walt Cygan on 10/15/2013 - 08:51 am.

          A note about Darwin

          Darwin was never a practicing clergyman. He had some education in that field, but embraced the life of a naturalist pretty early on.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/16/2013 - 09:26 am.

        The issue

        The real issue is, what was the reaction of the church hierarchy to reports of abuse? “Oh, dear, Father Begorrah has been bothering the altar boys again. It’s time we transferred him to Des Moines, so he can deal with his little problem.”

        Now consider what happens to a dentist who molests a patient: is he transferred to another clinic to deal with his problems? Of course not–he is prosecuted and probably loses his license to practice.

  2. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 10/14/2013 - 11:23 am.

    Why is there any question?

    Failure to report is clear, and any teacher, doctor or family member would be prosecuted for such failure. The cover-ups and enabling of pedophile priests by shuffling them to other parishes is criminal aiding and abetting.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/14/2013 - 11:57 am.


    It looks like Nienstedt was a little too concerned with other issues to be bothered with a little pedophilia in the church. Maybe he should have spent a little less time and money trying to prevent gays from marrying and a little more cleaning his own house.

  4. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 10/14/2013 - 12:14 pm.

    I’m sorry, but honestly…

    is there anyone left, with the exception of Reginald Whitt, a Catholic priest, and Charles Reid Jr., a law professor at a Catholic University, trust the church leadership anymore? I, for one, would not trust them as far as I could throw them!

  5. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/14/2013 - 12:38 pm.

    Take off the gloves on this one…

    Isn’t it time see the man at the top of the article in a orange jumpsuit and a number across his chest? Front and side profile. No touch-up photos please.

    We’re talking children here; abused for life and those who protect pedophiles rather then turn them in are no better?

    We are yet not a theocracy. Criminal intent is the issue and should be treated as such.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/14/2013 - 12:46 pm.

    My own answer

    … to the headline’s rhetorical question is:

    An unequivocal “Yes.”

    Moreover, given the circumstances, I’d argue that both of the rhetorical possibilities ought to take place. No one else in any position of authority or, as they say in similar cases, “…a position of trust,” would be allowed any slack. There’s no reason, legal or ethical, to make a “special case” of the Archbishop by providing him leeway not granted to others.

  7. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 10/14/2013 - 12:57 pm.

    It is almost impossible to change the minds of authoritarian followers, so congregants will continue to go to the church, give it money, and trust it. Reason and evidence count for nothing in “faith.” BTW – the feds should use RICO laws to go after the church as a criminal organization.

  8. Submitted by Bob Schwiderski on 10/14/2013 - 04:50 pm.

    Call for a grand jury investigation

    65. Rev. Huberty, Mark
    67. Rev. Jeyapaul, Joseph
    69. Rev. Kapoun, Robert E
    70. Rev. Keating, Michael J
    71. Rev. Kelleher, Cornelius

    These MN clerics have all been in the news just the past 7 days — the rest of the 179 accused Minnesota clerics are posted here:

    How about a grand jury investigation ?

  9. Submitted by Judy Jones on 10/14/2013 - 10:08 pm.

    Actions needed by law enforcement

    The church officials 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 and saying, “I’m sorry” does not protect kids.

    Actions need to be taken by legislators and law enforcement to hold these church officials responsible.
    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.

    Sex abuse thrives in secrecy and secret systems that allow it to continue to this day, so let’s hope that anyone who may have knowledge or may have been harmed will come forward and contact police, not the church officials. They are not the proper officials to be investigating child sex crimes.

    Silence is not an options anymore, it only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.
    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511.
    “SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  10. Submitted by Michael Skiendzielewski on 10/15/2013 - 02:14 pm.

    Effective remedies for Criminal Activity – Canon and Civil Law

    As a retired Captain from the Philadelphia Police Department, there is nothing better to capture the attention of criminals (in this case, alleged child sexual abusers and conspirators/abettors) than the cold steel of handcuffs, fingerprint ink on the extremities, the spartan and unexciting cuisine of detention centers, and the appropriate fashion statement of the orange wardrobe (stripes added at times).

    As evidenced by the past few years of proceedings here in the City of Brotherly Love (the legal, genuine variety), local archdiocesan Catholic leadership have begun to realize just how serious their predicament really is, i.e., investigating legitimate abuse allegations, failing to act on the danger to children and subsequently moving (or hiding) the offender to another location, whether inside the archdiocese or elsewhere, where other children are placed at risk due to the CRIMINAL CONDUCT of both the abuser as well as leadership co-conspirators.

    “Canon law is very eloquent on what a bishop is supposed to do, but there is no list of Thou Shalt Nots,” says Father Reginald Whitt (2002). “These (sex abusers) are criminals, but they are our criminals and we can’t lose them. Indeed, the bishops have a duty to try to save them,” says the Rev. Reginald Whitt, professor of canon law at University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

    Father Whitt has a degree in canon law and civil law. Which perspective will take prominence and priority when he reviews the findings of the task force committee he established to review the debacle in the archdiocese? It is humanly, ethically and morally IMPOSSIBLE to avoid conflicts of interest from both perspectives (civil and canon law) when attempting to review and resolve the rights of priests vs the rights of child victims.

    Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Kansas City move over…………….here comes the Twin Cities and their unique brand of US Catholic Church leadership.

    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Captain (retired)
    Philadelphia Police Dept.

  11. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 10/15/2013 - 05:48 pm.

    The title seems to be equating job loss or charges for the Archbishop, and some have suggested he be exiled to the Vatican. This misses the point. Endangering kids and protecting abusers is not something you should be laid off for or sent on a trip to Rome for. It’s a serious crime, and the response should be in the criminal justice system, not (yet more) internal shuffling.

  12. Submitted by Max Reiner on 11/13/2013 - 01:04 pm.

    Archbishop Should Be In Jail By Now

    Any businessman who did what he did, which as shielding felons from the law, would be guilty of a felony. Therefore Nienstedt should be cuffed and jailed.

    He is no exception. The law is at fault here in not going to the Archdiocese and nabbing him. Read him his rights and jail him. For once, justice has to be done.

  13. Submitted by Max Reiner on 11/13/2013 - 01:07 pm.

    Nienstedt should be in jail on felony charges of aiding and abetting other felon priests.

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