SAINT PAUL (MN)
The Pillar [Washington DC]
June 22, 2023
A Minnesota bishop is set to be assigned to a pastoral ministry role in his archdiocese, eight years after he resigned from the office of auxiliary bishop amid scandal in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Bishop Lee Piché, who resigned as an auxiliary bishop at the age of 57 in 2015, will become vicar for retired in the Minnesota archdiocese next month, the archdiocese confirmed to The Pillar June 22.
The statement said that in the eight years since the bishop’s resignation, “Bishop Piché has embraced a life of prayer and penance for the intention of victims of abuse in the archdiocese, and for efforts to bring healing into the lives of those who have been impacted in any way by clergy abuse.”
The bishop’s new office is expected to focus on the needs of retired priests, and will not likely involve a broad public role in the archdiocese.
Piché resigned in June 2015 alongside Archbishop John Nienstedt, days after prosecutors said the archdiocese had willfully ignored warning signs of a priest abusing minors.
Ten days before Piché’s resignation was announced, prosecutors in Minnesota had filed criminal and civil charges against the archdiocese, alleging it had failed to protect minors who were abused by a priest.
The June 2015 criminal complaint alleged that Piché himself was informed in 2010 that a priest, Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer, had taken two young boys on an unsupervised camping trip, and had shared a bed with one of them. Piché told police he had no recollection of receiving that report.
At the time he allegedly received the report, Piché reportedly had knowledge of other inappropriate or concerning behavior from Wehmeyer, according to the criminal complaint, and the priest had a record of discipline in the archdiocese.
In 2009, Piché had been informed of another camping trip Wehmeyer had taken alone with a minor, the criminal complaint said.
The bishop had also been informed previously of other alleged misconduct, according to the criminal complaint, including Wehmeyer’s repeated presence in an elementary school’s student bathroom — which had resulted in a correction from Piché — and his alleged solicitation of young men in a bookstore.
Wehmeyer, for his part, was in 2012 convicted of sexually abusing minors and the possession of child sexual abuse material. He was sentenced to five years in prison, and was subsequently convicted for an additional instance of sexual assault.
The criminal charges against the Minnesota archdiocese were dropped in 2016, after the archdiocese acknowledged wrongdoing in its handling of abuse allegations.
At the time of Piché’s resignation, the bishop released a statement saying that “the people of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis need healing and hope. I was getting in the way of that, and so I had to resign.”
The bishop said at the time that he “submitted my resignation willingly, after consultation with others in and outside the archdiocese.”
In the months before his resignation, Piché was tasked with overseeing an investigation into allegations of misconduct leveled against Nienstedt.
In 2014, Piché and Bishop Andrew Cozzens, then also an auxiliary of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, were assigned by Nienstedt to investigate allegations that the archbishop had mishandled allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors in the archdiocese, as well as having himself committed acts of sexual misconduct toward seminarians.
That investigation became the subject of media attention during the 2018 Theodore McCarrick scandals, amid controversy over whether former apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Vigano had in 2014 ordered the bishops to shut down their enquiry.
Bishop Cozzens said in 2018 that he and Piché had “believed that we were being told by the nuncio to close the investigation,” but said that after they both “strenuously objected,” Vigano “clarified that we should focus the investigation and complete it.”
Cozzens said the investigation into Nienstedt was “doomed to fail” because there was no clear mechanism for investigating allegations against a serving diocesan bishop.
Five years later Pope Francis would promulgate Vos estis lux mundi, providing norms for such processes. It is not clear whether an investigation into Nienstedt under the aegis of Vos estis has been initiated.
After the resignations of Piché and Nienstedt, Archbishop Bernard Hebda was named to lead the archdiocese, first as apostolic administrator and then as archbishop in 2016. Hebda has been frequently praised among bishops for his handling of clerical sexual abuse issues in the archdiocese.
Piché is not the only bishop in the U.S. to have taken up a ministry role after resigning as a diocesan auxiliary.
Bishop Joseph Binzer resigned in 2020 amid evidence that he failed to adequately address allegations of grooming behavior made against a diocesan priest. In 2021, Binzer was appointed pastor of two Cincinnati parishes.
Piché was named auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese in 2009, having previously served as vicar general and moderator of the curia in the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese.
The St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese said that priests in the archdiocese had supported Piché’s planned return to ministry, and that Hebda had consulted abuse survivors and their families.
“While [healing] efforts continue, Archbishop Hebda has asked Bishop Piché to return to the Archdiocese and embrace the work of providing pastoral care to our retired priests and of making himself available for restorative justice efforts related to abuse. At a meeting of retired priests held last month, the clergy gathered unanimously supported an invitation to Bishop Piché to serve as Vicar for Retired Priests,” the statement said.
“Prior to extending the invitation, Archbishop Hebda consulted as well with a number of individuals who had been personally impacted by the abuse crisis and other members of the community who have been involved in assisting the Archdiocese in its ongoing outreach to survivors and in its work to provide safe environments in our schools and churches,” the archdiocese added.