Archbishop Nienstedt Denies Sexual Misconduct Allegations in Vatican Lawsuit
By Maria Wiering
November 2, 2018
Archbishop Emeritus John Nienstedt defended himself Oct. 24 from renewed allegations that he has engaged in sexual misconduct and that his judgment in the case of a former priest who sexually abused three boys was influenced by an “unusual social relationship” with him.
The allegations are part of a lawsuit filed against the Vatican Oct. 24 by Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul attorney. Its two plaintiffs include Jim Keenan, a sexual abuse survivor from the Twin Cities. Filed in U.S. District Court-Northern District of California, Anderson’s lawsuit is the third he’s filed against the Vatican. Courts have dismissed both of the two previous suits.
The lawsuit seeks the release of Vatican-held documents in its archives pertaining to clergy sex abuse.
The lawsuit cites the internal investigation commissioned in 2014 by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis into allegations that Archbishop Nienstedt engaged in sexual misconduct with adults prior to being named Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis. That investigation produced affidavits alleging that Archbishop Nienstedt had sexually harassed and propositioned adult males and frequented gay establishments in Canada and Detroit.
“I categorically deny all of those allegations, and I have never used my position to take advantage of anybody,” Archbishop Nienstedt said in his statement.
In previous responses to the allegations, Archbishop Nienstedt, who served as head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis from 2008 to 2015, has denied being gay and has speculated that the allegations are retaliation for his public stance against same-sex marriage and homosexual activity.
The lawsuit also alleges that Archbishop Nienstedt assigned former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, who was convicted in 2013 and 2015 for sexually abusing three boys, to Blessed Sacrament and St. Thomas the Apostle parishes in St. Paul and promoted him to pastor, despite knowing of Wehmeyer’s history of sexual misconduct with adults, and that he and Wehmeyer’s relationship was “unusual.”
In his statement, Archbishop Nienstedt said he was aware at the time that Wehmeyer had “conditions” placed on his ministry and he was attending support group meetings, but that he was “unaware of any sexual misconduct allegations against him at the time,” and had he been, he would not have “promoted” him.
To the allegation that he had an unusual relationship with Wehmeyer, Archbishop Nienstedt said, “I have never had an ‘unusual social relationship’ or really any social relationship with Rev. Wehmeyer. At the time, Rev. Wehmeyer was an archdiocesan priest and I was his archbishop. I had three meals with him over the course of three years.”
The lawsuit against the Vatican also restates an allegation that Archbishop Nienstedt “inappropriately touched a boy during a confirmation photograph.” St. Paul police investigated that allegation in 2013-2014, and the county attorney declined to press charges.
Anderson also pointed to already public documents that he said support the claims he made in the Vatican lawsuit about Archbishop Nienstedt’s behavior. The documents include chancery memoranda regarding the internal archdiocesan investigation and interviews from a Ramsey County investigation into the archdiocese’s handling of clergy sexual abuse.
Archbishop Nienstedt, along with Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, resigned his role in the archdiocese in June 2015 “in order to give the archdiocese a new beginning amidst the many challenges we face,” he said at the time.
The resignation followed the Ramsey County attorney bringing civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese earlier that month, alleging that the archdiocese failed to protect children from Wehmeyer. The archdiocese had also entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2015 due to mounting clergy sexual abuse claims.
The archdiocese settled the civil charges in 2015, and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office dismissed the criminal charges in 2016. The archdiocese is now in the final stages of resolving its bankruptcy, with clergy sexual abuse victims expected to receive remuneration by year-end. Anderson represented most of the sexual abuse survivors with claims against the archdiocese.
After the resignation of Archbishop Nienstedt, no further action was taken on the internal archdiocesan investigation. The investigation has recently received renewed media attention due to the involvement of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the U.S. papal representative at the time, who has issued several statements since August calling for Vatican accountability in the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. In the recent lawsuit, Anderson alleges that there was a Vatican “cover-up” involving Archbishop Vigano during the Archbishop Nienstedt investigation.
In an Aug. 31, 2018, statement, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, one of the two Archdiocesan auxiliary bishops at the time of the 2014 investigation, said the investigation “was doomed to fail” and the situation shows that “the Catholic Church desperately needs an independent structure, led by experienced lay personnel, to investigate and review allegations made against bishops, archbishops and cardinals.”
Tim O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, expressed a similar desire in the statement that he issued in response to the latest Anderson lawsuit.
“Archbishops and bishops, like priests, must be held accountable,” he said. “The direct involvement of objective and competent laity in an accountability process will promote integrity and is necessary for the process to have credibility with the public. This is critically important to the health and wellbeing of the Church today. We, in this archdiocese, fully support the establishment of an independent board, with lay person involvement and leadership, to investigate and fairly address accusations of misconduct against bishops and archbishops. An oversight board similar in make-up, competence, and authority to our Archdiocesan Ministerial Review Board should be empaneled on a regional or national basis as soon as is possible.”