Court-appointed official says Vatican failing on accountability in Nienstedt case
By Christopher White
March 23, 2020
|In this 2015 file photo, Archbishop John C. Nienstedt is seen in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The Napa Institute in Irvine, California, announced Aug. 15 that the archbishop, former head of the Minnesota archdiocese, has "stepped aside from his responsibilities" with the institute.|
A court-appointed official for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is alleging that the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops is failing to comply with new protocols for bishop accountability created by Pope Francis with regard to a potential investigation into former Archbishop John Nienstedt.
Nienstedt led the archdiocese from 2008 until resigning under fire in 2015 after charges of failing to protect children from sexual abuse. In addition to allegations that he actively covered up for abusive priests, Nienstedt has been the subject of investigations regarding his own misconduct.
According to documents obtained by Crux, on July 17, 2019, Thomas Johnson, who serves as ombudsman for clerical sexual abuse for the archdiocese, submitted a formal complaint against Nienstedt to Archbishop Bernard Hebda outlining two instances in which he argues Nienstedt should be subject to a Vos Estis Lux Mundi investigation, referring to an apostolic letter issued by Francis in May 2019 for bishop accountability.
Johnson, a former three-term Hennepin County attorney, was appointed to his post in January 2018 following an agreement between the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in Minnesota to ensure the archdiocese’s compliance with child protection policies.
The complaint was reviewed by Hebda, who determined that the allegations were not “manifestly unfounded,” the standard required by protocols for an initial review, and was forwarded to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops in Rome, which is led by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet.
Despite the fact that Vos Estis requires a determination be made within 30 days, more than six months later, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is still waiting for a response.
A Vatican spokesman told Crux there would be no response to requests for clarification at this time.
Johnson told Crux the delay is “unacceptable” and “risks undercutting the trust and transparency that the [Vos Estis] protocols were intended to help restore, particularly among victim survivors.”
According to the complaint, Nienstedt is accused of both interference with a criminal investigation and sexual acts involving minors.
While the facts underlying neither allegation is new - both date to a 2014 investigation by the City of St. Paul Police Department and Ramsey County Attorneys - Nienstedt has maintained his innocence.
“There has been a black cloud over Archbishop Nienstedt’s head for at least five years,” Johnson told Crux. “It certainly precedes the ground-breaking criminal charges brought against the archdiocese for its failure to adequately protect children, which is what led to the archbishop’s forced departure.”
“Allegations concerning Nienstedt’s improper conduct toward priests and seminarians are well known within the archdiocese,” he said. “Many of the allegations have been subject to one or more local investigations and the results sent to the Vatican. But no further investigation has been undertaken by the Vatican, nor has any other type of action been publicly communicated,” said Johnson.
According to criminal investigative reports by Minnesota officials, Nienstedt’s testimony about the nature and extent of his relationship with former cleric and convicted child sex abuser Curtis Wehmeyer, as well as about his knowledge of Weymer’s past sexual activities, is contradicted by numerous lay and clerical witnesses.
Nienstedt’s lies to officials, Johnson alleges, about his knowledge of Weymer’s past behavior is a violation of article 1 of Vos Estis regarding “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations.”
Moreover, the complaint chronicles an incident in 2005 when Nienstedt, then bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota, asked two minor boys to come to his private hotel room during World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, and undress in front of him, as he also removed his own clothes, purportedly to dry out their clothing from the rain.
“While the Vatican should have investigated Archbishop Nienstedt for his conduct over the years, there was no policy that required it to do so. That policy wasn’t in place until Pope Francis issued his apostolic letter last spring setting out how bishops and others in the church hierarchy should be investigated for allegations of clerical sexual abuse,” Johnson said.
“Importantly, Vos Estis allows lay people, like me, to file a complaint against a bishop for clerical sexual abuse. I took advantage of the opportunity with every expectation the Vatican would follow through,” he said. “But it didn’t, starting with the protocol’s 30-day time period to decide whether an investigation should be conducted.”
Six months later, Johnson says the archdiocese has still not received any word from the Vatican as to whether there will be an investigation of Nienstedt.
“What a disappointment,” he told Crux. “The protocols that were intended, I thought, to finally require bishop accountability and transparency have done neither, at least in the case of Nienstedt.”
Johnson said that part of his reason for coming forward is that while the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has made significant progress working with the victim survivors and their families on a local level, their credibility is being undermined by inaction at the Vatican regarding Nienstedt.
“My complaint takes a simple, straightforward approach. Of the many potential abuses by Archbishop Nienstedt that fit under the new protocol, my complaint focuses on two serious, but relatively easy-to-investigate incidents,” he said.
“One where Nienstedt allegedly engages in a sexual act with two teenage boys, and the other where he allegedly lies to criminal investigators about his relationship with Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest who was convicted of sexually abusing three minors in his parish after Nienstedt had appointed him pastor there in spite of being warned of his past transgressions,” Johnson said.
“If the evidence shows what I believe it will, Nienstedt should suffer consequences for his behavior. It would mean the world to victim-survivors if that were to happen.”
Further, Johnson said that the lack of transparency from the Congregation for Bishops in the Nienstedt affair raises questions about how Vos Estis is being enacted more broadly.
“I’m not sure if the problem is one of insufficient will or lack of capacity. If it’s the latter, during my time as ombudsman for the archdiocese, I’ve observed how quickly putting the right people and the right processes in place can fix a broken system,” he said. “There is no reason this shouldn’t be happening right now at the Vatican. The stakes are too high to not move with the utmost speed.”
Nearly a year after its enactment, the implementation of Vos Estis seems to be experiencing a trial run, of sorts, with its usage and implementation varied.
In another case in which Johnson was aware, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis was the first in the United States to be formally authorized by the Vatican to conduct a Vos Estis investigation in the case of Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, who has been accused of pressuring an alleged abuse victim to drop his allegations against a priest.
The initial Hoeppner investigation began in September 2019, and last month the Vatican authorized Hebda, widely considered one of the leaders of clergy abuse reform efforts, to conduct “further investigation.”
After Vos Estis took effect last summer, Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York was widely considered to be the test case for the new protocols, which relies on metropolitan archbishops overseeing investigations into bishops accused of abuse or cover-up.
Instead, in the case of Malone - who had been accused of mishandling numerous cases of abuse - the Vatican opted for an apostolic visitation into the diocese led by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, rather than an investigation under the norms of Vos Estis. In December 2019, following DiMarzio’s investigation, Malone resigned.
The other known ongoing investigation into a U.S. prelate under Vos Estis is into that of DiMarzio, who has been accused of abusing an altar boy nearly 50 years ago while serving as a priest in the Archdiocese of Newark. DiMarzio has denied the accusation and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has been authorized to conduct a Vos Estis investigation into the matter.
As for the Nienstedt investigation, a spokesman for the archdiocese confirmed to Crux that the complaint was forwarded on August 2, 2019, to the apostolic nuncio to the U.S. to the Vatican, but due to the sensitive nature of the matter could not comment further.
Teresa Kettelkamp, former executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection told Crux that Vos Estis “closed a lot of gaps” when it comes to bishops accountability, adding that “we need to give the pope a lot of credit.”
Still, she noted there does not appear “to be a to be a feedback mechanism that if they don’t meet the deadline, they give an update.”
“That would be helpful,” she said, adding that “it seems to be industry standard in other arenas.”
“I think the public needs that for the credibility of the Church,” she continued. “We cannot continue to be a black hole, especially when it comes to serious allegations regarding our leadership. If you can’t meet a deadline, tell the public why - for the credibility of the bishops and the credibility of the Church, things can’t disappear.”
In 2018, Pope Francis appointed Kettelkamp as a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and she says based on her own experience working at the Vatican that she understands that internal operations can be very slow, often with the mindset that “we’ll do it tomorrow.”
She also noted that the delay may be an issue of not having the right amount of staff to handle the number of cases, but said that even if that’s the case, transparency is still necessary. Further, she emphasized that Vos Estis was adopted on an experimental basis for three years and that that it’s still operating in a sort of “beta phase,” noting that matters such as the Nienstedt case will have the be considered when it is revised.
Still, for Johnson, nearly a year after the document was first issued, he believes the archdiocese in entitled to an answer as to how to proceed forward.
“The protocols, when they took effect on June 1 of last year, were supposed to fill the void of how to respond to allegations of abuse or to the cover-up of abuse by bishops,” said Johnson, of Vos Estis. “Now, because of lack of planning, preparation and follow through by the Vatican, these hopes are being dashed.”
“Surely, this is not what was intended,” he told Crux. “To over-promise and under-deliver does a disservice to all involved, particularly the victim survivors. This lesson should have been learned long ago. Action is needed, not more words.”