So, Where Do We Go from Here?
By Jennifer Haselberger
June 19, 2015
There is little doubt that Monday's announcement of the double-resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt and Bishop Lee Piche was a pivotal moment for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. While much remains unknown about what happened and why, I think almost everyone would agree that the resignations, and the appointment of Apostolic Administrator Archbishop Bernard Hebda, are important steps forward. Question remains, however, regarding what further actions need to take place to prevent this from becoming another lost opportunity, and another heartbreaking breach of trust between the Church and its faithful. Let me offer a few suggestions.
1). The Archdiocese needs to stop lying- to itself and to others
For years, if not for decades, the leadership of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis has been intentionally misleading, deceiving, or otherwise misrepresenting itself and its actions to the lay faithful, the clergy, the civil authorities, and even to the universal Church. By doing so, the Archdiocese has created a situation where 'doing the right thing' has often become impossible because it would mean exposing or acknowledging previous deceptions.
You do not have to take my word for it. There is sufficient evidence publicly available now to convince even the most stalwart supporter of our embattled Church that the Chancery deliberately misled the public. Take, for instance, a March 31, 2011, article in The Catholic Spirit (below) where my former colleague assures the faithful that 'We can safely say that today there's no clergy in a ministerial position who have been credibly accused of child abuse...We know that for certain'. This statement, we now know, was made after Chancery officials had learned that Father Wehmeyer had been found sharing the bed of one of his minor victims. That fact, along with the rash of removals and public notices since September of 2013, establish the 2011 statement as patently untrue, but in order to truly appreciate how the lies have built upon themselves you should review these email exchanges (email one, and email two) between that same coworker and I from July of 2012- after we had learned of arrest of Curtis Wehmeyer on charges of sexual abuse.
These type of lies did not stop once the public became aware of Curtis Wehmeyer's history, as is evident from the Archbishop's interview with Minnesota Public Radio in October of 2013, or even his deposition- taken under oath- in April of 2014. The falsehoods, deceptions, and misrepresentations also were not limited to statements by Archbishop Nienstedt or his staff, as was made clear in a December 2013 hearing in the Doe 1 case when attorneys for the Archdiocese claimed that there had only been one priest accused of sexually abusing a minor since 2004. At that time the Archdiocese and its attorneys were aware of several other accusations post-2004, including one involving Father Fredy Montero that had been reported by Nienstedt to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2008 and had ended in a settlement negotiated by the same law firm.
Nor would it appear that it has stopped lying even after the resignations of Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piche. I was extremely disappointed to hear Bishop Cozzens touting the Archdiocesan safe environment program at a Q&A session with priests earlier this week. It seems a little ridiculous to be extolling the merits of our policies and programs less than two weeks after the Ramsey County Attorney argued in legal pleadings that court intervention was necessary in order to prevent the Archdiocese from further acts that would encourage, cause, or contribute to the sexual abuse of minors, and that such intervention was essential to 'protect not only the well-being, safety, and morals of the victims in this matter, but the general well-being, safety, and morals of others from same or similar harm.' That the County Attorney felt called upon to seek a court order to prevent the Archdiocese from further contributing to the delinquency of minors should alone indicate that reasonable people have serious concerns about the Archdiocese's 'improvements' in this area.
Even more concerning, however, was that in extolling these new policies Bishop Cozzens linked their appropriateness to the fact they were the embodiment of the recommendations of the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force which, Bishop Cozzens stated, 'looked at everything that dealt with this issue' prior to making its recommendations. Now, this has been the official refrain about the Task Force since its inception, but that characterization was called into question even before the Task Force issued its report, which included a description of the limited information it had actually been permitted to review (p. 8 and footnote 70 on p. 44). In addition to officials like myself refusing to be interviewed, the Task Force did not have access to all clergy personnel files, was told that the Archdiocese had no way to reach Father Peter Laird, and, perhaps most egregiously, was not informed about the investigation into the personal conduct of Archbishop Nienstedt- despite the fact that the investigation had produced relevant information regarding the Archbishop's relationship with Curtis Wehmeyer and how that might have impacted his handling of reports of his misbehavior. In commenting on the failure to provide a telephone number for Father Laird, the Task Force concluded in March of 2014 that it was 'disappointed that the Archdiocese was not more transparent'.
When you are in a hole, the only way to get out of it is to stop digging. The Archdiocese needs to stop perpetuating the deceptions of the past and most of all it needs to stop trying to convince Catholics in this Archdiocese that things are not as bad as they seem. There are not 825,000 Catholics in this Archdiocese. There weren't before the Nienstedt administration, and there certainly aren't now. We have not created a safe environment for children and young people, and if we continue to base our 'improvements' on recommendations developed through flawed processes we never will create one. And, don't claim to be cooperating with any investigations or legal processes unless you are absolutely sure that the evidence is going to support that claim.
I don't think that this culture of deception is ubiquitous in the Catholic Church. However, I think the actions of this Archdiocese call into question the statements and actions of other related entities. After all, the Archdiocese has now been criminally charged for failing to protect children during a period of time in which they consistently passed the annual USCCB audit designed to measure the Archdiocese's efforts in creating a safe environment for young people. Surely this calls the entire audit process into question. And, we know now that the Archdiocese reported only a percentage of the priests who had committed acts of sexual abuse to the John Jay College research team tasked with investigating the causes and context and nature and scope of the problem of sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church. The National Review Board has said repeatedly that it does not comment on or investigate individual cases. Perhaps it is time that it starts.
2. Change needs to come sooner rather than later
Yes, an Apostolic Administrator has a role similar to that of a caretaker. Yes, he is to avoid doing anything that might leave the Archdiocese in worse shape than when he received it. And yes, most bishops, pastors, and priests are told that they should not make any changes in the first year of a new assignment, and if they really feel they must, that they are to restrict themselves to painting the door of the rectory. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and these are truly desperate times.
Archbishop Hebda is stepping into a Chancery that is facing criminal charges, and the charging documents name or implicate many, if not most, of those who would normally be assumed to be his key advisers. The focus of the complaint and civil petition might be the Wehmeyer case, but the other cases that are incorporated into it ensnare other Chancery officials who might have otherwise escaped scrutiny by virtue of their not having held their roles before 2012 or even 2013.
Those who are implicated in the conduct that led to criminal charges are unlikely to embrace honesty or transparency while the charges are unresolved and while the threat of individual prosecutions looms. Likewise, those who have been perpetrating the deceptions of the past are unlikely to be forthcoming about their actions, intentions, and knowledge. Obviously it will take Archbishop Hebda some time to figure out who is who, and who bears responsibility. However, until he has those answers, I would hope that he would delegate the day-to-day management of the Archdiocese not to anyone on the current staff, but to an outsider- perhaps a religious priest- who he knows, trusts, and who can serve as his eyes and ears when he is in New Jersey. Barring that possibility, it needs to be someone who has never had the opportunity to drink the Chancery Kool-Aid, so to speak. And, other changes in the administration need to come as soon as is feasible, and not be delayed until the appointment of a permanent replacement to Archbishop Nienstedt. The next Archbishop, whoever he may be, will still have the opportunity to select his own staff.
3. We need to recommit ourselves to our core values, and ensure that all of our actions reflect that.
Many priests have expressed their frustration with Bishop Cozzens's statements on Monday night that he is 'impressed' by the Archdiocese's legal team, and that Church 'needs good lawyers at these times'. That frustration was only exacerbated when it became public that the Archdiocese was seeking the permission of the bankruptcy court to hire yet another attorney at a rate of $400 per hour.
For the past forty years, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis has allowed its actions to be dictated by the advice of its attorneys, by concerns about litigation, by issues surrounding insurance coverage and liability, and most of all by a desire to shield individuals from the consequences of their actions. This has caused unspeakable harm to individuals, resulted in the financial and moral bankruptcy of our church, and ultimately has resulted in nothing but an enormous and ongoing scandal that has had a detrimental effect on everything good the Archdiocese has done or wants to accomplish. And it didn't even work.
Now is the moment for this Archdiocese to return to its core mission and values, beginning with its court appearance in mid-July. The County Attorney has alleged that the Archdiocese by its actions and omissions caused or allowed others to cause harm to the well-being and morals of minors. To prevent similar harm from occurring to others, the County Attorney has asked the court to stop the Archdiocese from continuing along this path, and for the court to evaluate and exercise oversight over its child protection efforts going forward. Every indication is that the Archdiocese intends to fight these claims.
Why? According to the bankruptcy filing, because to not do so might negatively impact the Archdiocese's insurance coverage.
The Catholic Church, and its bishops, have repeated asserted that they have made a promise to protect and a pledge to heal. That the Archdiocese failed to uphold the promise to protect in the case of the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer is obvious. Moreover, since the Archdiocese has publicly stated repeatedly its current desire to protect children, why would it not welcome the assistance of the civil authorities in meeting this goal? Other dioceses have entered into agreements with prosecutors and civil authorities. Why would we fight efforts to have our programs evaluated, and scorn the offer of assistance with oversight of those programs? Because of insurance coverage?
This Archdiocese needs to regain the courage of its convictions. We need to do the right thing because it is the right thing. We cannot continue to let a fear of consequences interfere with our obligations as Christians and as human beings.
4. The universal Catholic Church must learn from our mistakes.
These issues are very important to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. But, they should also be important to the Catholic Church outside of this territory. The universal church must examine and learn from this experience, unless it wants to see it repeated.
The establishment of a Tribunal to hold bishops accountable for their failures, and resignations or removals when necessary, are both good things. They are steps in the right direction. But, they are also reactive rather than proactive. They punish behavior after abuse has occurred. My goal is and has always been to prevent it from happening in the first place.
The larger Catholic Church needs to look at the situation as it played out here, and as it has occurred elsewhere. It needs to examine how ineffective or deficient leaders are appointed and promoted, and how and why crucial warnings signs and attempts to draw attention to the issues we were facing went unheeded. Why didn't Church authorities step in before these matters became public?
I did not share my knowledge with the media until I had exhausted all of the internal options available to me. For years I believed that I was 'holding down the fort' so to speak, until the cavalry Could arrive. There was plenty of concerning information crossing the Atlantic that should have alerted church authorities to what was and wasn't taking place in Saint Paul- beginning with the minimal and contemptuous submission of information to the Congregation for the Faith in 2005, continuing with the Archdiocese's failure to constitute a Tribunal to hear the case of Father Joseph Wajda, and finally in light of the Archdiocese's failure to respond to the request for information regarding Father Jonathan Shelley (to give just a few examples). Then, we had embezzlement. I discussed my concerns and struggles about both issues with several Church officials outside of the Archdiocese, and that didn't stop when I resigned in April of 2013. My resignation memo was shared with many within the Archdiocese and beyond, and yet the Church didn't act. The cavalry never arrived.
Punishment like forced resignation or a judicial sentence is, of course, important both as a matter of justice and as a deterrent. But it can't be the only tool in the toolbox. Moreover, I wonder if it can be successful in a secretive, hierarchical organization like the Catholic Church, or if instead such the threat of punishment will foster even greater secrecy. Clearly, we need to create a process whereby failures of the kind that led to the downfall of Archbishop Nienstedt can be known and resolved before they reach such a catastrophic level. How do we do this? I don't know. But more importantly, the universal Catholic Church doesn't know either, and it can't know until it studies and investigates this matter from every heart-wrenching angle.
As the corporate world has already learned, the best way to prevent the crises caused by external whistleblowing is to facilitate internal whistleblowing. The Church needs to learn this lesson too. It needs to protect, support, encourage, and reward those who advance the Church's efforts in the area of child protection and in other areas (e.g. finances) where deplorable conduct is occurring. The internal messages need to match the external marketing.
On the other hand, if the Catholic Church does think the threat of punishment is the solution, then the threatened punishment can't be an occult verdict delivered by a secret Tribunal, or even a vaguely worded announcement of a resignation. If punishment is meant to deter others from misconduct, bring back 'trial by ordeal' (something I think many victims would say the Church never truly set aside). The 'ordeal' can take place in the diocese harmed by their leader's acts or omissions, tickets can be sold, and in that way the faithful might be able to recoup at least some of their material losses.
As a final note, I want you all to be prepared that there is very likely more bad news to come. I think many will find it disturbing to learn in the coming weeks and months the extent to which some in Church governance have abused their office and the trust that we placed in them. We should not let that information, when it comes, diminish the hope and expectation that we feel in light of Monday's resignations.