GREEN BAY (WI)
September 3, 2021
By Robert Herguth
No charges were filed against the 3 Norbertine order priests he accused — including a man convicted twice of sex crimes. But his death helped spur a broader investigation by Wisconsin’s attorney general.
Photo above: Nate Lindstrom as a teenager with the Rev. James W. Stein, a Norbertine priest who later was convicted twice of sex crimes. Provided
By the time he was in his mid-30s, several years after he confided to his family that he’d been the victim as a teenager of sexual abuse by three priests, Nate Lindstrom was “really falling apart” mentally and emotionally, according to his parents.
So they turned to the Norbertines, a Catholic religious order in Wisconsin.
Lindstrom had told his family he’d been molested beginning the summer before his freshman year of high school in Green Bay, Wis., by Norbertine priests, including the Rev. James W. Stein, then a charismatic young cleric, who later ministered in Chicago.
Believing their son’s worsening mental health was a result of having been sexually abused, Mary and David L. Lindstrom met in 2009 with the abbot who led the Norbertines, the Rev. Gary Neville, and asked for financial help.
Neville didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing by his clerics but agreed the order would start sending $3,500 a month to Nate Lindstrom and also would help pay for his therapy and medication, according to his family and friends who provided the Chicago Sun-Times with letters and other records documenting the arrangement.
The payments were unusual. They didn’t come in response to a lawsuit or any settlement and were, in effect, secret.
A decade later, though, with a new abbot in charge, the order stopped them. It said there was “no basis” for the sex abuse accusations against two of the three Norbertine priests Nate Lindstrom had named.
The order didn’t address the third priest. That appears to be Stein, whom Nate Lindstrom had said repeatedly fondled him and performed oral sex on him. Stein eventually left the order.
On March 9, 2020, not long after the Norbertines halted the payments, Nate Lindstrom — who was self-employed and had been in regular therapy — shot and killed himself in the suburban Minneapolis home where he lived with his wife Karen Lindstrom and their three young daughters. He was 45.
Amid their grieving, Nate Lindstrom’s family, friends and other supporters organized protests against the order — which is based in Green Bay and nearby De Pere, Wis., and which runs St. Norbert College. They paid to put up “I Believe Nate” billboards, called for the new abbot to resign and urged Josh Kaul, Wisconsin’s attorney general, to investigate how Catholic orders and dioceses in that state deal with complaints about sexual abuse of children by clerics — an investigation Nate Lindstrom had also pushed for before his death.
Earlier this year, with Nate Lindstrom’s parents, siblings and wife appearing with him, Kaul announced his office would undergo such a review, which continues.
Nate Lindstrom’s complaints offer an unusual glimpse into how one Catholic religious order responded to sexual abuse accusations.
Nate Lindstrom’s family and friends say he faced “hardball” tactics and a lack of compassion from the order. They provided records to show how the order’s leader and lawyer dealt with their son.
Among those records was a May 21, 2018, letter from Thomas M. Olejniczak, the Norbertines’ attorney, spelling out rules Nate Lindstrom would have to follow to keep getting money from the order. The payments would continue for one more year, Olejniczak wrote, but only if Nate Lindstrom agreed to allow Praesidium — a Texas company the Norbertines and other Catholic orders operating in the Chicago area and elsewhere have hired to help them prevent and deal with clergy sexual abuse — have a big say in his mental health care.
“The order will provide, at no cost to you the following services,” Olejniczak wrote, with the Rev. Dane Radecki, the new abbot, copied. “Pastoral and psychological counseling for a one-year period beginning on June 1, 2018, and ending on May 31, 2019. A psychologist approved by Praesidium will conduct the psychological counseling.
“Praesidium will monitor your treatment every 10 sessions. Praesidium will decide on continued treatment or cessation of treatment and pastoral assistance.”
Olejniczak also wrote that the “allegations you have made against two members of the order were thoroughly investigated by Praesidium and no basis for your allegations were found.”
Neither the Norbertines nor Praesidium would confirm the names of those two clerics or discuss whether Stein also underwent scrutiny.
Asked about what Olejniczak wrote, Praesidium spokeswoman Brooke Pratt says the company “only recently became aware of the letter. Upon its discovery, we immediately began addressing the letter and its contents with the St. Norbert Abbey.
“The categorizations in the letter of our investigation and the services we provided are incorrect. We in no way played a role in monitoring, overseeing and recommending mental health care or recommended any specific type or duration of treatments, though we did suggest someone local who could facilitate finding support. The letter . . . clearly misrepresents our role.”
Pratt says Praesidium “did perform an investigation into allegations surrounding two members of the abbey, and our conclusion was not that the claims weren’t credible or that there was no basis for the allegations, it was that we were unable to verify them, an important distinction. Again, the . . . letter misstates what we did.
“Praesidium did not recommend any specific doctor in this case. We referred the abbey to another person in the region who had established expertise on trauma — not a provider but a resource person to help secure a provider.”
Olejniczak, who is a board member of the Green Bay Packers, wouldn’t comment, citing the Kaul probe, which he calls “political.”
Radecki didn’t return calls.
In a written response to an interview request, a spokesman for the order says: “In regards to Praesidium, we categorically disagree with their statement about the work they provided and their role in making recommendations. The letter accurately outlines their services. The abbey stands by its letter.”
After getting Olejniczak’s letter, Nate Lindstrom tried to negotiate, according to his family and a letter he sent the following month to the attorney. In it, he wrote that the abuse resulted in “fear, anxiety, flashbacks, unwanted thoughts.”
Olejniczak wrote back in July 2018, saying the order’s “original offer . . . was more than generous.
“We are of the opinion, based on the investigation that has been done, that you need the ability to see another therapist as decided by Praesidium, not yourself. That is the only way that you will be able to escape this spiral you are in.
“Your continued expectation of ongoing support by the order is misplaced, as there is no evidence of abuse by an order member upon you.”
According to his family, Nate Lindstrom reluctantly agreed to the terms the order’s lawyer laid out and saw a new psychologist recommended through the Norbertines.
In June 2019, as his financial support was being cut off, Nate Lindstrom wrote to Praesidium and the Norbertines to ask for continued payments, saying, “I do not have the resources to move forward . . . Time is of the essence.”
The following month, Olejniczak wrote back that his request for more “financial support” was denied, that “reports” from the new therapist “indicate that you have made progress, and we are thankful for that progress.”
Last December, a day after the Green Bay Press Gazette published a story about Nate Lindstrom’s suicide, sexual abuse accusations against the Norbertines and the payments, totaling at least $400,000, that the order had made to Nate Lindstrom, Radecki wrote in a letter posted on his group’s website that “third-party investigators interviewed all names forwarded to them, reviewed files and deemed the accusations to be not credible.”
Karen Lindstrom, 42, says of the way the order dealt with her husband as he sought its help: “That way of speaking down — it was just another way of Nate feeling like another abused 14-year-old again.”
In the days before his death, Nate Lindstrom seemed distraught, according to his older brother Aaron Lindstrom, who says he suggested in a phone conversation they call a “crisis” hotline.
His family says Nate Lindstrom was bothered more by feeling he was being made out to be a liar than by the money being cut off.
While the order knew for years that Nate Lindstrom had accused Stein of sexually abusing him, he hadn’t publicly named the other two until more recently.
But, according to family members and friends, he had told them much earlier and had been consistent in what he told them over the years.
None of the three clerics was charged with any crime based on Nate Lindstrom’s accusations.
Stein, 61, left the order and no longer acts as a priest. Recently, he has been working as a dishwasher at a Milwaukee-area restaurant. Reached by phone, he declined to comment.
Stein is one of 24 current, former or deceased Norbertine priests who face what the order has deemed to be credible accusations of child sexual abuse. That’s according to a list the Norbertines posted online in 2019 and updated earlier this year.
Unlike similar lists posted by some other orders and Catholic dioceses, it doesn’t include information about where or when the priests served — not spelling out, for instance, that Stein, among others on the list, served for years in Chicago.
Nor are their names included in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s posting of nearly 80 priests and deacons who reported to Cardinal Blase Cupich or his predecessor bishops and were found to have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse. Cupich has demanded for years that the semi-autonomous Catholic orders operating in his territory — Cook and Lake counties — disclose to him any accusations of abuse against their members, the Sun-Times previously has reported. But Cupich has left it to the orders to decide whether, and how, to make that information public.
In 1988, Nate Lindstrom was a 14-year-old freshman at a Norbertine-run high school in Green Bay that’s now called Notre Dame Academy. Aaron Lindstrom was several years older, also a student at the school and working part-time as a house boy at the order’s priory, an adjacent complex where some of the Norbertines lived.
The job entailed serving the Norbertines meals in their communal dining room and cleaning up. Aaron Lindstrom, now 50 and running a business in Chicago, says he got his little brother hired there the summer before he started high school.
Aaron Lindstrom knew Stein as a teacher at their school, then called Premontre High School, where Radecki was the principal.
“Stein’s reputation was both sainted and notorious,” says Bob Peterlin, who was a part of the order in the 1980s and 1990s but quit before being ordained.
He says students liked Stein because he wasn’t like the other clerics. For one thing, he carried around and occasionally played an acoustic guitar.
Shortly after Nate Lindstrom started his job at the priory, Stein took the boy and another student to a movie, where Nate Lindstrom saw Stein molest his friend in the car before going into the theater, according to interviews with Nate Lindstrom’s family, records and the account from the Green Bay Press Gazette, which interviewed Nate Lindstrom multiple times.
That night, according to what Nate Lindstrom told his family, Stein took the boys to the abbey — the monastery where a number of Norbertines live in nearby De Pere — for a swim. Another Norbertine priest undressed, “persuaded Nate to take off his clothes and get into the hot tub and then sexually abused him,” according to the Press Gazette.
The Sun-Times isn’t naming that priest, who remains in ministry, because he wasn’t charged with a crime and isn’t on the order’s list of credibly accused priests. He has denied any wrongdoing.
During another visit to the abbey, a third priest molested Nate Lindstrom in the sauna and then again in the shower, according to his family and what he told the Press Gazette. That man died in 2018.
David E. Lindstrom, the oldest of the three Lindstrom brothers, remembers attending a spiritual retreat at the abbey as a kid. He says that, during a break, the kids went swimming and then showered. That same priest stripped and mingled with the nude boys, according to David E. Lindstrom, who says, “I got out of there.”
Nate Lindstrom witnessed Stein molest a 14-year-old friend at the abbey in 1988 in what became part of a criminal case against Stein in 2003, according to the Lindstroms and the victim.
With Stein charged with three felony sex charges, his lawyer argued he couldn’t be prosecuted because the statute of limitations for such crimes had expired. But Brown County, Wisconsin, Judge Sue Bischel ruled against him. Because Stein had been out of state — including time he spent in Chicago off and on since 1991 — the statute remained in effect, Bischel ruled.
Two of the three charges were dropped when Stein agreed to plead “no contest” to the single remaining charge: second-degree sexual assault against a child, a felony. Prosecutors recommended a prison sentence of five years. The victim agreed.
But the judge, who received letters from other priests supporting Stein and imploring her to be lenient, sentenced him to one year in jail, where he was free to leave on work release. He got out after nine months for good behavior.
According to court records, Bischel said she wasn’t going easy on him, that, instead, prosecutors were wrongly singling out the priest. She said they “would not, I do not believe, be recommending a prison sentence for a fondling case” except that Stein was a priest.
She ruled that Stein wouldn’t have to register as a sex offender but later reversed herself on that because Wisconsin law required him to register.
Some of the letter writers who stood up for Stein — including members of his order who are still in ministry — cited his work with kids in Chicago as a reason to go easy on him.
Stein moved to Chicago from Wisconsin in 1991 after he’d been arrested but before he was convicted in a separate court case of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old St. Norbert student. According to court records, Stein tried to hypnotize him and massaged his “genital area” in a sauna at the abbey.
Stein avoided prison time in that instance and subsequently became involved in youth ministry on the South Side, serving in low-income, mostly Black neighborhoods.
The Rev. Brian G. Walker, a priest with the Dominican order in Chicago, wrote the judge in 2004 that Stein “coordinated a Teen REACH Center . . . . During its peak, it responded to academic, social, recreational and therapeutic needs for about 200 teens and young adults on the South Side of Chicago.
“The Englewood neighborhood, where the center is located, has traditionally been one of the most violent, drug-infested areas of the city,” Walker wrote. “The center provides a ‘beacon of hope and safety’ for its participants. I have assumed responsibility for its operation since Fr. Stein was removed from ministry in April 2002.”
In one letter, the Rev. E. Thomas De Wane, a former Norbertine leader who recently has died, told the judge: “I have known of Jim Stein even when he was a student at Premontre High School but did not get to know him well until he joined St. Norbert Abbey in August of 1980.
“I have interacted with Jim on a more intensive basis while I was the abbot-in-charge from 1993 through 2003.”
De Wane also pointed to Stein’s work in Chicago, writing: “I would also add that all of his ministry during the time of my leadership has been with the inner city. One of his most enduring ministries has been at St. Sabina Parish on the South Side of Chicago.”
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, St. Sabina’s longtime leader, says he isn’t certain when Stein officiated mass at St. Sabina, only that it would have been around 1990, lasting “on and off for a couple years.”
“He never worked with teens here,” Pfleger says. “He helped out with Sunday masses when we needed an extra person. He was really good at liturgy, so people liked [him. He would bring some teens often with him to church, but I don’t know where they were from.”
A letter from the Rev. Jeremy Tobin, another Norbertine, said, “I remember him working at St. Benedict [the] African parish youth programs. He coached basketball, and it was open to the community.
“Occasionally I would see him with some youth, and they could talk that hip-hop language, but if anything got out of line, he could correct them like my eighth-grade nun, and they would take it. Never did I see any youth disrespect him. . . . I only wish we had more like him.”
Records show Stein worked at St. Benedict in the mid-1990s with middle school kids, teaching, counseling and coaching.
Another Norbertine who wrote on Stein’s behalf, the Rev. Brian Prunty, ran the now-closed St. Willibrord Parish in Roseland and its high school, which Stein visited with Green Bay-area teens for spiritual retreats before his legal troubles.
“He brought us down, we stayed in an old convent,” according to Aaron Lindstrom, who says Stein also arranged for the white kids from Wisconsin to mingle with Black kids.
Two other priests on the order’s list of offenders served at times as pastor of St. Willibrord, which closed in 1988, records show. Stein taught at the high school briefly in the mid-1980s, records show.
While working in Chicago in the 1990s, Stein studied to be a psychologist and at one point was counseling jail inmates. He lived at a Kenwood mansion long used by his order.
Neville “was the house superior, so he would have known the goings and comings of everyone,” Peterlin says. “If you asked Neville what’s going on with Stein, he’d say, ‘Jimmy’s got troubles.’ ”
The abbot at the time, the Rev. Benjamin Mackin, also ended up on his order’s list of child sex abusers this year for child sexual abuse in the 1980s. He died in 2005.