Archbishop John Nienstedt’s apology to clergy sex abuse victims published Thursday drew reactions ranging from praise and gratitude to more calls for his resignation.
“The archbishop is offering humble, thoughtful and decisive leadership,” said Father Bill Deziel, a parish priest who earlier used his church bulletin to ask the archbishop to step down. After the archbishop’s statements, the priest said in an email: “I fully support him and his team and these meaningful steps that he is implementing to ensure that no children are ever put in harms way by abusive clergy.”
The Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR), meanwhile, wrote to Papal Nuncio Carlo Maria Viganó asking for Nienstedt’s resignation and to have a voice in his replacement [PDF].
“We have grave concerns that the pastoral needs of the archdiocese will be compromised by the amount of time, energy and money that Archbishop Nienstedt will expend as he defends himself and his previous actions in the ongoing sexual abuse and cover-up crisis,” the group’s leaders wrote.
“Even if criminal charges are not brought against the Archbishop or members of his administration, their judgments about priests’ ‘fitness for ministry’ will be continually in question.”
CCCR has six Catholic member organizations: Call to Action Minnesota, the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, CORPUS, Dignity Twin Cities, the Compassion of Christ Catholic Community and Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community.
On the website of the Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the archdiocese, Nienstedt apologized for the pain caused by the sex abuse and said he would have an outside agency review priests’ files. He did not, however, acknowledge the archdiocese’s failure to act appropriately on past allegations or agree to turn over a list of “credibly accused” priests and evidence about them.
“Sexual abuse of anyone is absolutely heinous, and it must be opposed with every fiber of our being,” he wrote. “And when it is perpetrated by a member of the clergy, it is an egregious betrayal of a sacred trust. … And so, with genuine sorrow, I apologize to all those who have been victimized, whether on my watch or not.”
The reform group CCCR voted last week to call for Nienstedt’s resignation, but members decided to wait until publication of his remarks to send their letter to him [PDF] and to the Vatican envoy in Washington, D.C.
“We find that we are kind of caught in this tension with our local church,” said CCCR board member Mary Beth Stein. “We didn’t want to jump the gun if what he was going to say was very constructive.”
The column, she said, “seemed like damage control.” “He’s saying he’s sorry, which is good,” Stein added, “but it strikes me as feeble coming so long after the events.”
In recent weeks, headlines have suggested archdiocesan leaders failed to follow through on abuse allegations, failed to turn alleged child porn over to authorities and left a priest in active ministry despite reports of sexual misbehavior. Nienstedt’s Thursday column was his first comments to the public about the news reports.
The archbishop’s remarks came in the wake of highly unusual criticism of his handling of the abuse allegations by parish priests. In addition to Deziel, Father Michael Anderson wrote about the situation in the of Church of St. Bernard newsletter.
Also on Thursday, the Star Tribune reported that Father Terry Rasmussen, pastor of St. Joseph Parish Community in New Hope and Plymouth, said he had lost faith in Nienstedt’s ability to lead the church out of the crisis.
While CCCR’s members, along with the outspoken Father Mike Tegeder, have been critical of church leadership for several years, Deziel’s and Anderson’s remarks were notable because they are priests at mainline, traditional parishes not known for challenging Archdiocesan leaders.
Paula Ruddy, secretary of the CCCR board, said she was baffled by Nienstedt’s statement in his column that the last month had changed his understanding of the abuse cases. Disaffected Catholics in her group have been asking for dialogue with the archbishop for years but have been repeatedly rebuffed, she said.
“He tells us that we don’t think with the mind of the church,” said Ruddy. “He has told us we should find another church if we don’t agree with the teachings of the Catholic church.”
Ruddy said she received a personal letter from Nienstedt some time ago suggesting she find another church. “The last letter that he sent said we should spend our time on things that are more Catholic.”
CCCR’s members have long called for transparency. A two-way dialogue and more influence from lay people would go a long way toward preventing problems like the wave of sex abuse cases, Ruddy and Stein said.
The church’s written policies regarding abuse are good, they said, but its leadership is closed off.
“He’s almost like a monarch or a prince of the church,” said Stein of Nienstedt. “If it’s not to his liking, people are just dismissed. I see that in the whole handling of the sex abuse crisis.”
The papal nuncio, by contrast, has encouraged CCCR members to be in touch, albeit as individuals, she and Stein said. In addition to writing to Nienstedt Thursday asking him to step down, the group asked the Vatican’s U.S. representative for a voice in selecting his successor.
“We respectfully ask you to seek recommendations from all the Catholic people of the Archdiocese — ordained, lay, men and women religious — in the matter of a successor Archbishop or any bishops appointed hereafter,” members wrote.
“Vigano wrote us through Nienstedt saying he’s always open to and welcomes recommendations from the laity on the selection of bishops and archbishops,” Ruddy said.
We have removed a quotation from an email that was mistakenly attributed to Father Michael Anderson.