With the announcement Tuesday that Archbishop John Nienstedt is stepping down while police investigate allegations that he touched a young man inappropriately, the sex-abuse scandal sweeping through the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis ratcheted to a new level, according to abuse survivors’ advocates and prosecutors.
Even as observers speculated whether Nienstedt would retain enough credibility to return to ministry if cleared of allegations he touched a boy during a public photo shoot, St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith blasted the archdiocese for failing to cooperate with its efforts to investigate other abuse allegations.
Smith shared a Dec. 4 letter to Nienstedt in which the chief complained that church leaders had repeatedly tried to speak to the church official responsible for investigating sex-abuse allegations. Without more information, police would have a hard time obtaining search warrants, the chief said.
Police refused to address the allegations against Nienstedt himself, though, saying only that adequate resources had been assigned to investigating the pending cases. Even the Archbishop’s most vocal critics cautioned that there’s nowhere near enough evidence to speculate about the claim.
For a variety of reasons, sex-abuse allegations against bishops are fairly common. What’s unusual is for a prelate to be dealt with in the way priests accused of misconduct are supposed to be managed: by removal from active ministry while civil authorities investigate claims.
‘They’re usually treated as different or special’
“Sometimes they hunker down, sometimes they resign,” said Terry McKiernan, president of Bishop-accountability.org, a watchdog group that has tracked the allegations for years. “But to treat them as a priest — that usually doesn’t happen. They’re usually treated as different or special.”
Complaints lodged against the vast majority of the bishops whose cases are cataloged by the group have not been conclusively resolved. In many, an internal church investigation failed to substantiate the claims, which are virtually always denied.
Two other things stand out as unusual for McKiernan. For starters, if the Vatican was not tracking the Twin Cities scandal before now — entirely possible given that there are some 4,000 bishops around the world — the new allegation is almost certainly under discussion in Rome, he said.
In its Tuesday statement [PDF], the Archdiocese said Nienstedt was voluntarily stepping aside after consulting Papal Nuncio Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican envoy to the United States.
“The papal nuncio gives advice on the Vatican’s behalf,” said McKiernan. “I think this now has the Vatican’s attention.”
Moreover, he added, it’s likely the Archbishop realized he had little choice but to move swiftly in part because of the strength of the news media’s coverage of abuse charges leveled at Minnesota dioceses in recent weeks.
“Nienstedt,” McKiernan continued, “probably did not feel safe doing what has been done in the past” — to have the church deliberate internally about the credibility of the claim instead of immediately turning to secular authorities.
Several of the bishops on the group’s posted lists have ties to Minnesota. The late Paul Dudley was a priest in St. Paul in the 1950s, at the time of one of the allegations against him. He later served as auxiliary bishop here. Also deceased, James Rausch was auxiliary bishop in St. Cloud. And Robert F. Sanchez, who resigned as archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., is said to be living in Minnesota.
Even vocal critics wait for evidence
Not even Nienstedt’s most vocal critics were willing to gauge the likelihood the allegation will be borne out, however. Numerous bishops have been the target of false allegations while the subject of headlines like those plaguing church officials here.
In 2002, with an abuse scandal engulfing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, two different California residents charged Cardinal Roger Mahoney with abuse. One had serious mental-health issues and the other a track record of lodging false claims.
Sex and power can be closely intertwined in the Roman Catholic Church, McKiernan explained. “Sexual relations often have to do with getting ahead,” he said. “There’s a lot of blackmail. … A lot of secrets are being kept so secrets will be kept.”
Some allegations involving bishops aren’t on lists maintained by survivors because they involve adult seminarians, who may be pressured to exchange sexual favors for career advantages. “It’s not the world you and I live in,” said McKiernan. “It’s a different world.”
According to statements by both Nienstedt and church officials, the new allegation involves a young man who posed for photos with the Archbishop after his 2009 confirmation. According to a “mandated reporter within the church,” Nienstedt is said to have touched the youth’s buttocks during the group photo session.
‘This allegation is absolutely and entirely false’
“I do not know the individual involved; he has not been made known to me,” Nienstedt wrote. “I presume he is sincere in believing what he claims, but I must say this allegation is absolutely and entirely false.”
During public photo shoots, Nienstedt insisted, he normally and deliberately stands with one hand on his crozier, or staff, and the other on the right shoulder of the newly confirmed or on his pallium, a short stole that hangs from his chest.
In its statement, the Archdiocese said it learned of the allegation last week and directed the mandated reporter who brought it forward to tell police. Under Minnesota law, clergy and several other categories of church employees are required to report suspected abuse.
In his letter [PDF], Nienstedt said he was made aware of it over the weekend. A St. Paul Police Department spokesman said officers were told about the allegations at 2 p.m. Monday.
“It’s disturbing that a mandated reporter [first] called church officials and not secular officials,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We hope that law enforcement moves swiftly. That’s the investigation we think should happen first and that matters.”
Clohessy repeated SNAP’s plea to anyone with information about clergy misconduct to go to civil authorities first, and not church officials or their parish priest.
Likely avenues of inquiry
In addition to talking to the youth who lodged the allegation, investigators are likely to try to talk to others who were present at the time, according to Washington County Attorney Pete Orput and others familiar with sex-crime investigations. They may also talk to people in a position to have seen changes in the child’s behavior, such as parents and teachers.
“Virtually every crim-sex case I’ve seen in my career, and that’s thousands, there’s no witness,” said Orput. Minnesota law doesn’t require corroboration of survivors’ claims, he added, but juries tend to want more than a victim’s testimony.
He and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi met a couple of weeks ago to discuss their options, said Orput. Frustratingly, no one has yet presented him with evidence he can move forward on. Cases in his jurisdiction have been too old.
If he gets something he can act on, he will, said Orput: “Get me something and I’ll show you what I can do about it.”
In a statement released Tuesday night, the Archdiocese again said it fully intends to cooperate with law enforcement and looks forward to a meeting Wednesday between its attorney, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, Fr. Charles Lachowitzer, and police.
“Our hope was that, through this meeting … we could better understand the requests for information in greater detail,” said the statement.
“I hope that the investigations can be thorough but quick,” Nienstedt wrote. “I already long to be back in public ministry — to be able to serve as the Lord has called me to serve.”