Vatican Ambassador Sought to Bury Nienstedt Misconduct, Documents Say
By Marino Eccher
July 20, 2016
[Affidavit of Thomas E. Ring - Redacted]
[July 7, 2014 Memo]
From the outset, Daniel Griffith assured the investigators the church didn’t want “a white-wash or a witch hunt,” but the unvarnished truth.
One priest had already been convicted of sexual abuse. John Nienstedt, the sitting archbishop, was facing allegations of misconduct. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis hired the law firm Greene Espel to get to the bottom of it, promising free rein and seeking an investigation that would be beyond reproach.
But when confronted with early results, a top Vatican official sought to snuff out the findings and plunge the archdiocese into what Griffith — a priest dismayed and disillusioned by the church’s maneuvering — deemed “a good old fashioned cover-up,” according to documents released this week.
Announced Wednesday, the archdiocese struck a deal with Ramsey County prosecutors to avoid criminal prosecution for its handling of sex abuse cases but to confess wrongdoing and improve its practices. The same day, Jeff Anderson, an attorney who has represented hundreds of people making sex abuse claims against the church, made public more than 100 pages of related documents.
Those include internal memos, depositions, sworn affidavits and law enforcement notes that shed light on how the archdiocese handled accusations against its former archbishop — and how the Vatican ultimately sought to derail the effort.
The church hired Greene Espel in January 2014 to investigate allegations Nienstedt had made inappropriate sexual advances over the years on a number of priests, seminary students and other men — sometimes, according to his accusers, interfering with the careers of those who turned him down.
|Archbishop John Nienstedt |
Nienstedt himself signed off on the investigation. Lee Piche, then an auxiliary bishop, oversaw it. Griffith, the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, was appointed as the liaison between the church and the law firm.
The sole objective, he told investigators, “was to determine as best they could the truth of falsity of the allegations,” he wrote in a confidential April 2014 memo.
Four months in, they submitted preliminary findings that included 10 sworn affidavits that detailed behavior from Nienstedt that ranged from unsolicited neck-rubs, to uncomfortable invitations on overnight trips, according to the documents.
Investigators also turned up evidence that Nienstedt had a close social relationship with Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest who pleaded guilty in 2012 to sexually abusing three boys. The two were known to dine and drink together, and Nienstedt made Wehmeyer a pastor against the advice of other officials, the documents said.
Nienstedt issued a statement Wednesday night, denying the allegations and saying he believed they were part of an effort to smear him because of his opposition to same-sex marriage. He said he is not gay and has never made inappropriate advances or engaged in a cover-up.
But the evidence was compelling enough that in April 2014, Griffith, Piche, auxilliary bishop Andrew Cozzens and other archdiocese officials reviewed what had come in so far and agreed Nienstedt should resign, according to another 2014 memo from Griffith. Piche and Cozzens went to Washington to meet with Apostilic Nuncio Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S. Nienstedt went with them.
But after meeting with the three men, Vigano ordered investigators to interview Nienstedt quickly, stop looking into new leads — there were still dozens to pursue — and “wrap up the investigation,” Griffith wrote.
Piche and Cozzens objected in a letter, saying “this would rightly be seen as a cover-up,” Griffith wrote. According to Griffith’s July memo, Vigano ordered them to take back the letter and destroy it.
Greene Espel balked at the new directives, saying it was out of step with their mandate of an exhaustive and impartial probe. Griffith warned that they wouldn’t let themselves be “patsies.”
Sure enough, the law firm cut ties with the archdiocese in July, saying they weren’t willing “to perpetuate the myth” of a fair and thorough process, Griffith wrote.
He urged church officials to rehire the firm. The handling of the investigation, he wrote, “made the Archdiocese complicit in a white-wash and a cover-up” — one he believed would inevitably unravel.
“To be sure,” he wrote, “this will all come out.”
Vigano resigned in April. A Vatican spokesman said Thursday that “the situation is complex” and that it needs more information before commenting, the Associated Press reported.