An Isolated Nienstedt Tried to Limit Investigation into Himself
By Madeleine Baran
Minnesota Pubic Radio
June 19, 2015
|Archbishop John Nienstedt walked with other opponents of legalized abortion during a 2014 vigil and protest outside of Planned Parenthood in St. Paul. Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News|
On April 10, 2014 — seven months into the clergy sex abuse scandal — Archbishop John Nienstedt's top advisers gathered for a private meeting. They had just received several affidavits from an internal investigation of Nienstedt that had been authorized by the archbishop himself to address damaging rumors.
The sworn statements accused Nienstedt of inappropriate behavior, according to people who read them, including sexual advances toward at least two priests.
Private investigators had even arranged a prison interview with Curtis Wehmeyer, the former priest at the center of the clergy sex abuse scandal. Wehmeyer, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to child sex abuse, told the investigators he couldn't understand why Nienstedt wanted to spend time with him or why he kept him in ministry. Nienstedt made him uncomfortable, he said, and they never had sex. Wehmeyer said he wasn't interested in Nienstedt.
Nienstedt had authorized the investigation with the expectation that it would clear his name. Instead, it threatened to ruin it. At the meeting last spring, the advisers went around the room. Each said Nienstedt should resign.
A few days later, Auxiliary Bishops Lee Piche and Andrew Cozzens traveled to Washington to bring that message to the pope's ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio. It was a brave move that threatened the careers of both men. Piche and Cozzens had hoped Vigano would agree that the future of the archdiocese was more important than the reputation of one man.
What happened at that meeting is unknown. Piche, Cozzens and Vigano did not respond to interview requests.
However, when the bishops returned to Minnesota, everything changed. The investigation, as it was originally ordered, was over.
Nienstedt would stay in power another 14 months after choosing to curtail and diminish efforts aimed at uncovering the truth about his private life, efforts that reached the highest levels of the Catholic Church in the United States. At one point he accused an investigator of bias for disagreeing with him on same-sex marriage. The investigation brought significant costs, as well: The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for it, and it destroyed Nienstedt's reputation among the clergy.
In the end, his efforts weren't enough. He would become increasingly isolated and desperate as his closest advisers turned against him. And on Monday, the Vatican announced that Nienstedt had resigned. Piche, one of the two bishops who met with the nuncio last year, stepped down the same day.
The story of Nienstedt's efforts to limit the investigation comes from interviews with more than a dozen people in Minnesota, Michigan and Oregon with direct knowledge of the inquiry. They include four people who provided affidavits to investigators, current and former chancery officials, and other people who spoke with investigators over several months.
Nienstedt could not be reached for an interview. He was last seen a week ago at a conference of bishops in St. Louis. And on the day of his resignation, he was absent. A spokesman for the archdiocese wouldn't say where Nienstedt had gone or how to contact him.
In an interview with MPR News in July 2014, Nienstedt said, "I've done nothing criminally wrong ever, and nothing immoral." He characterized the investigation as independent. "I was told not to interfere with the procedures, and I have not interfered to this day," he said.
Piche told MPR News in an email last month that Nienstedt did not interfere in the investigation. When asked in a follow-up email whether anyone at the archdiocese had curtailed the investigation, Piche wouldn't answer. "It would be a disservice to those involved to discuss specifics of the investigation at this time," he wrote. Piche also could not be reached for an interview.
Attorneys at Greene Espel — the Minneapolis law firm that conducted the first investigation — dispute the claim that Nienstedt did not interfere.
"We strongly disagree with those statements. Greene Espel's investigation and work will not be mischaracterized without a response by us," attorneys Matt Forsgren and David Wallace-Jackson said in a written statement to MPR News on June 11. The attorneys declined to be interviewed.
In an additional statement last Tuesday, the attorneys said: "Our assignment was to investigate regardless of outcome. The assignment was a serious one because, all along, we considered the gravity of this situation for the Archdiocese as a community. We did our best, under the circumstances, to meet that obligation."
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who filed criminal charges against the archdiocese two weeks ago, wouldn't say whether he had requested the Greene Espel investigative file, whether the archdiocese had agreed to turn it over, or whether prosecutors had received it.
Earlier this month, Choi said the archdiocese had been "generally cooperative" with law enforcement. He did not elaborate.
• June 5: Archdiocese faces criminal charges
In a written statement on June 17, the Rev. Dan Griffith, who served as the liaison between the Greene Espel attorneys and the archdiocese, said he is "confident that the Archdiocese, under its new leadership, will cooperate fully with the St. Paul Police Department and the Ramsey County Attorney's Office in their ongoing investigation."
• Document: Statement of the Rev. Dan Griffith
Griffith declined an interview request.
'You just felt like a punching bag'
Plans for the investigation into Nienstedt's private life began in late 2013.
The archdiocese was in chaos. A series of MPR News reports had revealed that Nienstedt and other top church officials failed to report some alleged sex crimes to police, gave extra payments to priests who had admitted abusing children, kept some abusers in ministry and chose not to warn the public.
Chancery officials didn't know how much MPR News knew or when the stories would stop. Parishioners called for Nienstedt's resignation. Police opened criminal investigations. Victims filed lawsuits. Nienstedt's top deputy resigned, ignoring the archbishop's plea to stay.
Several priests met privately with Nienstedt and urged him to resign. Nienstedt refused, saying, "I am not a quitter."
At a private meeting with his priests in late 2013, Nienstedt said he felt blindsided by the scandal and the scope of the reporting.
• Betrayed by Silence: Cover-up unravels from the inside
"You just felt like a punching bag, you know?" Nienstedt said, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by MPR News. "It's one thing coming after another after another."
Many priests at the meeting didn't trust Nienstedt's explanations. One priest told the archbishop the affair reminded him of Watergate: "What did you know and when did you know it?"
Meanwhile, priests and others circulated rumors that threatened to ruin the archbishop's reputation.
Later, in a July 2014 interview with MPR News, Nienstedt said the rumors surfaced at the same time police were investigating a claim that he touched a boy's backside at a public event. The police investigation ended without charges.
"All of a sudden it seemed like rumors and innuendos were coming out of the woodwork," Nienstedt said. The archbishop said his staff told him, "'Well, we should probably investigate it. We would with any priest.' And I said, 'Sure, I have nothing to hide.'"
In January 2014, Nienstedt signed a decree authorizing the investigation of his private life. He appointed Piche, the auxiliary bishop, to lead it.
Nienstedt also consulted Jon Hopeman, a prominent white-collar criminal defense attorney best known for representing convicted Ponzi schemer Tom Petters.
Nienstedt and a team of advisers agreed that the archdiocese would hire the Minneapolis law firm Greene Espel to investigate. The archdiocese would cover the costs secretly, which meant that parishioners who put money in the collection basket each Sunday wouldn't know that some of their money was being used to investigate rumors about Nienstedt.
• January 2014: Nienstedt authorized investigation into himself
Griffith, the priest who served as the liaison between Greene Espel and the archdiocese, said the archdiocese chose the law firm "because of its extensive investigative experience and its strong reputation for competence and integrity."
The investigation would strain the distinction between the archdiocese and Nienstedt. Although the archdiocese is a separate entity, the archbishop has near-absolute authority over it. In the Catholic hierarchy, even a vicar general — the No. 2 position in the diocese — has no power of his own and can only carry out the archbishop's wishes.
The church's structure gave Nienstedt tremendous power over the scope and direction of the law firm's investigation, though to the lawyers involved, the client remained the archdiocese.
"Our client was never any individual within the archdiocese," the Greene Espel attorneys said in their statement. "It was the entity: the archdiocese. And every decision that we made in our investigation was guided by the interests of the archdiocese as a whole, not the singular interests of any particular individual. That is how it is done when you represent an organization. And that is how we did it."
The two attorneys met with Griffith in early February 2014. Griffith told the lawyers what the archdiocese wanted: "to discover, as best they could, the truth or falsity of the claims regarding the Archbishop," Griffith wrote in his statement.
"I added that this was not to be a whitewash or a witch-hunt and indicated that they were to proceed without fear or favor," he wrote. "The investigators were told to follow the facts, as truth was their goal. The intent of the investigation, in justice, was to hold the Archbishop to the same standard of conduct expected of priests."
Griffith also told the lawyers to report any suspected crimes to law enforcement. Around the same time, former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson, acting on behalf of the archdiocese, notified the Ramsey County Attorney's Office that an investigation of Nienstedt was underway, according to a spokesperson for the Ramsey County Attorney's Office. Johnson confirmed he notified prosecutors, but said he had no "formal role" in the investigation.
'The archbishop is himself a scandal'
The Greene Espel lawyers faced a tough job. Diocesan priests take a vow of obedience to their bishop, and even with Nienstedt's approval, it wouldn't be easy to persuade priests to talk about allegations of sexual sins. In the Catholic hierarchy, sexual sins are carefully guarded secrets. Disclosing those secrets can be risky. As long as no one talks, everyone's secrets are safe.
Nienstedt had no reason to think this situation would be any different.
Forsgren and Wallace-Jackson, the two Greene Espel attorneys assigned to the investigation, had no special training in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
However, they quickly learned of allegations of misconduct that stretched back decades. The lawyers didn't just listen. They asked people to submit sworn affidavits, and 11 agreed.
Nienstedt had been ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1974. He had worked in the Vatican for several years in the 1980s and then returned to Detroit, where he served as rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary from 1988 to 1994. Nienstedt moved to Minnesota in 2001 to become bishop of New Ulm and became the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2008.
• Timeline: Nienstedt's time in the Twin Cities
In Minnesota, investigators obtained affidavits from several people, including the Rev. Eugene Tiffany, a widely respected priest who has served in the archdiocese for 43 years. Many priests cite Tiffany as a role model. They praise him for his candor, empathy and commitment to serving the church.
Tiffany also worked in the chancery with Nienstedt for several years as director of the archdiocese's Office of Priestly Life and Ministry.
"The archbishop is himself a scandal," Tiffany told MPR News in an interview last month.
Tiffany said he was concerned about Nienstedt's interest in college-age men at St. John Vianney Seminary and his practice of staying overnight at the seminary, 5 miles from his home.
"There seems to be a bit of preoccupation with young men at the college level," Tiffany said. "He prays with them, he celebrates Mass, and that's wonderful, but he also creates the opportunity for him to get close to them. And I think he needs that."
Nienstedt's attention led some men to feel pressured to join the priesthood, he said.
The lawyers also reached out to a former priest named Joel Cycenas.
In August last year, Cycenas told MPR News he had given an affidavit to investigators, but declined to provide a copy. He explained that he had befriended Nienstedt at a World Youth Day event in Canada.
"After that meeting and several other meetings, we became friends, best of friends," Cycenas wrote in his email, copies of which he sent to Bishops Piche and Cozzens.
"I enjoyed my friendship with him and respected him," Cycenas wrote. "He treated me with dignity and respect and was kind, gracious, friendly, hospitable and generous not only to me but to my family and friends as well."
Four months later, Cycenas emailed MPR News again, saying the archdiocese was "trying to discredit" his affidavit.
Cycenas has repeatedly declined interview requests to explain why the archdiocese would want to discredit his affidavit. He also won't reveal what he told investigators.
Nienstedt and Wehmeyer
The investigating attorneys also wanted to know more about Nienstedt's relationship with Wehmeyer. They told several people that they wanted to know whether Nienstedt had a personal relationship with Wehmeyer that influenced his decision to keep Wehmeyer in ministry and appoint him pastor of two parishes.
In the prison interview, one of the investigators asked Wehmeyer about his contact with Nienstedt, and Wehmeyer said he didn't know why Nienstedt would want to spend time with him, given his known record of misconduct. Investigators did not find that Nienstedt had a sexual relationship with Wehmeyer.
In an interview in July 2014, MPR News asked Nienstedt whether he had a sexually inappropriate relationship with Wehmeyer. "That's absolutely false," he replied.
Nienstedt described the relationship.
"Father Wehmeyer had me over for dinner the last night that I went to bless his altar. I had made him pastor and then he had a DWI, I think in the fall of 2009. I called him to find out how he was doing, as I call every other priest. He said he was going stir crazy. I said, 'Well, how about I take you out for dinner?' So I did, and then he reciprocated some months later, when he was back driving, at a restaurant owned by a friend of his. So that would have been three meals in three years. I don't know that that's an inappropriate relationship."
Wehmeyer did not respond to an interview request.
Attorneys Forsgren and Wallace-Jackson traveled to Michigan to interview priests and others who knew Nienstedt in his early years. They interviewed others by phone. They talked to a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit who told them Nienstedt had made sexual advances toward him years earlier.
• Risky priest, secret past: Wehmeyer's troubled tenure
Michigan-based priest Rev. Lawrence Ventline said he was one of the 11 people who gave an affidavit to the lawyers. He declined to provide a copy, but said he didn't accuse Nienstedt of any crimes, "other than if being gay is a crime."
Nienstedt's former colleague, Monsignor John Zenz, who served alongside him at Sacred Heart Seminary, also talked to the lawyers. He did not respond to an interview request.
Zenz urged the lawyers to contact James Heathcott, a former seminarian who now lives in Oregon.
Forsgren, one of the lawyers, found Heathcott on Facebook and sent him a message on March 27, 2014.
Heathcott had disturbing information for the investigators, but he didn't notice the message right away. By the time he did, the investigation was about to take a critical turn.
Nienstedt fights back
By early April, 10 of the 11 affidavits had been signed. Nienstedt's advisers met on April 10, 2014, and agreed that the archbishop should resign. Within days, Bishops Piche and Cozzens took a plane to Washington to meet with Vigano, the apostolic nuncio. Piche and Cozzens had hoped that Vigano would take the results of the investigation seriously. As the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, Vigano was responsible for managing daily affairs between the American bishops and Rome. Bishops answer to Pope Francis, not the nuncio, but the nuncio can play an important role in influencing the Vatican's decisions.
Vigano may have seemed like a good person to talk to about problems in the church. Years earlier, he had pushed for reform at the Vatican Bank, and was eventually exiled to the United States because of those efforts, according to Vatican experts. Vigano, though, had been friends with Nienstedt. As young priests, Vigano and Nienstedt had worked together in the same office at the Vatican in the early 1980s.
Although what happened in that meeting is unknown, after Piche and Cozzens returned to Minnesota, the relationship between the Greene Espel attorneys and Nienstedt quickly deteriorated.
Piche, who had been appointed by Nienstedt to oversee the investigation, narrowed the scope of the investigation. In February, the lawyers had been told to investigate allegations of past misconduct. Now they were told to limit the investigation to allegations of crimes and grave sins.
Griffith and several other advisers opposed the decision to curtail the investigation. "Throughout the process, I and others vigorously advocated that the investigation be allowed to proceed according to the original mandate and authorizing letter," Griffith said.
Around the same time, Nienstedt and his allies started to push back.
Nienstedt accused Forsgren, one of the investigating attorneys, of bias for his support of same-sex marriage.
Nienstedt had urged Catholics in 2012 to vote in favor of a state amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Forsgren had donated $250 to Minnesotans United for All Families, a group that opposed the amendment. He had also been involved in a pro-gay-marriage group called Lawyers United for All Families, according to his online resume.
In a written statement, attorneys Forsgren and Wallace-Jackson said, "To be clear, we were not biased in any way. That was a red herring."
Forsgren's involvement in the same-sex marriage movement was public knowledge and had been noted in his resume published on the law firm's website.
"That I made a contribution to the Lawyers United for all Families organization in 2012 is something that I have publicly disclosed on my website biography for years," Forsgren said in a statement Friday. "Beyond that, although I cannot speak at this time as to particulars, I would not under any circumstances proceed with any engagement without full disclosure of all facts at the outset. Hence my astonishment when that allegation was made, and I emphasize that the allegation was not made by our former client, the archdiocese."
Former seminarian accuses Nienstedt of 'grooming'
Seven days after Nienstedt's advisers met and agreed he should resign, Heathcott, the former seminarian, finally saw the Facebook message from Forsgren.
He called the lawyer.
"Wow, the timeliness of this call is uncanny," Forsgren told him, according to Heathcott.
Although the archbishop had signed off on the investigation, Heathcott remembers Forsgren saying, "He was now trying to pull the plug on it."
In one of their conversations, Forsgren explained that Nienstedt was trying to claim the firm had a conflict of interest for its views on same-sex marriage, Heathcott said.
Two other people with direct knowledge of the investigation confirmed that Nienstedt had made an allegation of bias.
Heathcott said he talked to the lawyers by phone several times, including two calls that he said lasted about four hours each. He also signed an affidavit, a copy of which he provided to MPR News.
Heathcott had enrolled in Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit in 1987, when he was 18 years old. Nienstedt became rector of the seminary the following year, and immediately, the tone at the seminary changed, Heathcott said.
Nienstedt called him into his office and asked, "Have you explored your sexuality?" and "Do you think you have homosexual tendencies?" according to Heathcott's affidavit.
"I responded truthfully that I was not gay. He nonetheless suggested that I should consider participating in a counseling program for reasons I still do not know."
Later that year, Nienstedt stopped Heathcott in the hallway near his bedroom and invited him on a weekend ski trip at a "private chalet," Heathcott said in his affidavit.
Heathcott declined and told Nienstedt that the invitation appeared to contradict Nienstedt's own statements to seminarians about the importance of maintaining proper boundaries. "Nienstedt made little or no response other than perhaps 'ok' and walked away," according to the affidavit.
A few days later, Heathcott found an envelope in his mailbox stamped "confidential."
Inside was a letter from Nienstedt "to the effect that in light of my 'recent behaviors' I was sending the 'wrong message' to other seminarians and that it was in the best interest of the seminary and the formation of others for me to leave," Heathcott said in his affidavit. "I was outraged by this."
That night, Heathcott left to attend a wedding. When he returned the following morning, Nienstedt asked where he had been and told him to pack his belongings and leave the seminary.
"The situation was ridiculous and I could not take it anymore," Heathcott said in his affidavit. "I was angry — and devastated."
Heathcott left the seminary. A short while later, he wrote a letter to the archbishop of Detroit, Cardinal Edmund Szoka, that explained how Nienstedt had kicked him out of the seminary. In his letter, Heathcott said, he expressed concern for the other seminarians.
Szoka never replied.
In his affidavit, Heathcott reflected on his contact with Nienstedt as a young man. "I consider Nienstedt's interactions with me to be a kind of grooming," he said.
"I believe that I was expelled from Sacred Heart because I rejected the invitation to go on a private ski trip with Nienstedt and two seminarians," he said. "This event ... impacted me significantly. I am often asked how I regard my time in the seminary, and I relate that my experience was wonderful although I would never wish on anyone what Nienstedt did to me. I believe that he denied me the chance to continue exploring my calling to the priesthood to its fruition. While I have no regrets — my life is wonderful today — there is a sense of 'what if' that I still carry with me."
Heathcott signed his affidavit on April 19, 2014. It was the final affidavit in the investigation by Greene Espel.
In July 2014, Greene Espel provided its report to the archdiocese. The lawyers also gave the archdiocese a supplemental report that included information about matters that fell outside the narrowed scope of the investigation.
A secret revealed
The public finally learned of the investigation on July 1, 2014, in news reports by Commonweal magazine and MPR News.
Nienstedt acknowledged an "internal investigation involving allegations against me." He said he had ordered Piche, the auxiliary bishop at the time, to oversee "an independent, thorough investigation," and the archdiocese had hired an outside firm.
Nienstedt denied the allegations and said they came from before he began serving in the Twin Cities. None, he said, "involved minors or lay members of the faithful, and they do not implicate any kind of illegal or criminal behavior."
He also acknowledged that Vigano, the apostolic nuncio, knew about the claims and would receive the results of the investigation once it had ended.
Many parishioners were stunned that Nienstedt would authorize a secret investigation into his private life.
Most employees of the archdiocese didn't know about it, and the revelation fueled paranoia and suspicion, according to priests and former chancery officials.
Two weeks after the news reports, an archdiocese employee called police to report a suspicious package left on the bottom of a coat rack at the Monsignor Hayden Center. Police treated it as a bomb threat and blasted the package with a high-powered water hose. It turned out to be a communion kit.
Meanwhile, Nienstedt faced pressure to answer questions. He hadn't agreed to any interviews since the abuse scandal broke in the fall of 2013. Suddenly, on July 30, he offered to talk to reporters from MPR News and several other news outlets.
In an interview with MPR News, Nienstedt wouldn't say what was being investigated. "I can't get into that," he said, "because when I started the investigation, I handed the authority of that over to Bishop Piche, and I told him that I would not interfere, so it really would be inappropriate for me to comment on that at this time."
Nienstedt also wouldn't say how much the investigation cost. "That again is out of my purview," he said. "I was told not to interfere with the procedures, and I have not interfered to this day."
He claimed not to know anything about the status of the investigation. "I'm very hopeful that they're near the end of this thing and that we can get some resolution of it as soon as possible."
A second investigation
Privately, however, Nienstedt decided that the investigation needed to continue, but with a new lawyer.
Around August 2014, he secretly authorized the hiring of Minneapolis-based criminal defense attorney Peter Wold.
Everyone involved in the second investigation has refused to discuss it. For months, the archdiocese wouldn't acknowledge that Wold was involved.
In a statement to MPR News in September 2014, Joe Kueppers, the archdiocese's in-house attorney, declined to provide a list of attorneys employed by the archdiocese. "To answer this question would violate attorney/client privilege," he said.
Three months later, Piche acknowledged in a statement to MPR News that Wold had been retained "to help with some remaining details in the same investigation." He wouldn't say what Wold was investigating.
Griffith, who served as the liaison between the archdiocese and the Greene Espel attorneys, said he had no role in the second investigation, other than being interviewed by the attorney.
Wold confirmed to MPR News that the archdiocese was his client, but declined to comment further.
Cycenas, the former priest who was interviewed in the first investigation, said Wold emailed him on Nov. 26, 2014. Cycenas forwarded the email to MPR News. "Joel, I look forward to meeting you next Thursday, Dec. 4, at the Panera Bread in the West End," it said. "Please let me know if that becomes inconvenient."
The subject line of the email was "Nienstedt investigation."
Cycenas said he met with Wold, but wouldn't elaborate.
The archdiocese won't say how much it paid Wold. However, in its bankruptcy filing in January 2015, the archdiocese disclosed that it paid the Wold Morrison law firm $138,625.50 from Oct. 22, 2014 to Jan. 15, 2015. The filing doesn't say why the archdiocese paid the law firm or whether it made additional payments before mid-October. (The court only requires the archdiocese to disclose payments made in the 90 days before the bankruptcy filing.)
The filings don't include any payments to the Greene Espel law firm, and the Greene Espel attorneys referred a question about the cost of the investigation to the archdiocese. However, people with direct knowledge of the Greene Espel investigation said it cost several hundred thousand dollars. At a news conference held in January to announce that the archdiocese had filed for bankruptcy, a reporter asked Nienstedt about the investigation. "That's not mine to speak to," Nienstedt said. "Bishop Piche is in charge of that. I'd ask him to speak to that."
Piche approached the podium. "The investigation is ongoing," he said. "And because of that, I can't say anything about it. It would be a disservice to those involved for me to make any comments while it's still ongoing."
A reporter asked whether the archdiocese would release the findings.
"I can't even comment about that yet," Piche said.
Then a reporter asked when Piche expected the investigation would end.
Anne Steffens, the interim communications director, interrupted.
"I think he answered the question," she said. "Does anybody else have any other questions?"
Five months later, Nienstedt resigned.
MPR News reporter Peter Cox contributed to this report.