Nienstedt case points to transparency tug of war

The Pillar [Washington DC]

January 19, 2024

By JD Flynn

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis announced earlier this month that a former archbishop will not be charged with canonical crimes after a lengthy Vatican-ordered investigation. But the archbishop will be subject to restrictions on his ministry as a priest.

While the announcement was meant to address long-lingering question about the status of Archbishop John Nienstedt, it may instead have opened as many questions as it resolved — both about Nienstedt, and about the Vatican’s Vos estis lux mundi process.

In a statement released Jan. 5, Minnesota’s Archbishop Bernard Hebda explained that Nienstedt had been under a Vatican-ordered investigation, which was looking into “certain decisions made during his tenure” in the archdiocese, and into “allegations of inappropriate conduct with both minors and adults.”

Hebda explained that Nienstedt was investigated by “officials outside of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” after complaints were raised about him in 2019 through the process of Vos estis lux mundi, an investigative schema for bishops promulgated that year by Pope Francis.

The archbishop’s note explained two things. First, that “the available evidence did not support a finding that Archbishop Nienstedt had committed any canonical delict.”

Second, that “several instances of ‘imprudent’ actions were brought to light” during the investigation, which led Pope Francis to approve significant administrative restrictions on Nienstedt’s ministry — the archbishop was forbidden from public ministry in the province of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he was prohibited from residence in that province, and he was prohibited from exercising ministry “outside his diocese of residence without the express authorization of the attendant Ordinary, and only after the Dicastery for Bishops has been informed.” 

The statement was an unusual end to a Vos estis lux mundi investigation.

On the one hand, it offered more information than is usually provided at the conclusion of Vatican investigations. On the other hand, it left a great deal vague, including the question of what kind of “imprudence” Nienstedt had committed, and why it merited such significant restrictions on the archbishop’s ministry.

Sources close to the Dicastery for Bishops say that the statement was an unusually candid end to a Vos estis process because of the insistence of Archbishop Hebda — and that the limits to the candor were the choice of the dicastery, which has become accustomed to concluding episcopal investigations with very little offered in the way of transparency.

Hebda, of course, has carved out for himself a reputation among American bishops as a straight shooter on clerical abuse and misconduct, a diligent investigator — and as a bishop unafraid of being actually transparent. 

That’s come from experience — his tenure in the Twin Cities has been marked from the beginning with Hebda tasked with managing the clean up of scandalous situations in his province. And the Nienstedt case is not the first time in which Hebda has aimed to tell the whole truth, and found the Apostolic See an unwilling partner — the same strained dynamic seemed obviously operative at the 2021 conclusion of the Hoeppner scandal in the Crookston, Minnesota, diocese, in which the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was forthcoming about its investigation, even while Rome let Hoeppner resign from his office, rather than face consequences for his apparent cover-up of sexual abuse. 

But what transparency Hebda managed to secure in the Nienstedt case was still quite circumscribed. 

In fact, hours after the archdiocese announced the Vatican decision, Nienstedt himself said he would like the Vatican to clarify its findings, suggesting that even he had not been apprised of the case against him. 

Given that Vos estis lux mundi was promulgated with promises of transparency — and assurances that justice done in secret was no justice at all — that transparency has not manifested in the years of the policy’s actual application in the life of the Church.

Of course, some observers are likely to argue that the Nienstedt resolution is a step in the right direction — that after an investigation, Nienstedt actually faced some real consequences for the apparent imprudence of his actions, and practicing Catholics were protected from whatever danger he might represent. 

But the problem in the sexual scandals of recent years has been concern about ecclesiastical officials acting outside the norm of law, operating in a black box of secrecy, to resolve problems in whatever they see fit, with no public accountability about the justice of their choices.

By that metric, the Nienstedt resolution could seem to observers like more of the same. Obviously, the archbishop was not afforded due process before the preceptive restrictions on his ministry — or even informed of the findings against him. 

Neither was the Church. What’s known is that Nienstedt did “something” wrong, and that he is apparently not suited to offer priestly ministry in at least three states. But without knowing even the gist of his imprudence, other bishops are asked to assess his suitability for ministry in their dioceses with a total absence of information.

And priests are left to conclude that some unspecified set of imprudences is sufficient to be prohibited from ministry, but are unable to learn from the Nienstedt affair what exactly those imprudences are, or if they themselves are in danger of a similar preceptive restriction. 

Further, the resolution to the Nienstedt case seems to ignore one of the most important lessons of recent years — that candor about intolerable clerical misconduct helps to give victims of similar misconduct the confidence to come forward. It seems unlikely that nebulous resolutions will have that effect. 

While there is now more clarity about Archbishop Nienstedt’s status in the Church, the Vatican’s resolution of his case does not bring clarity about the most important question Catholics are asking: Has justice been done?

On that question, the Dicastery for Bishops has not given enough information to reach a conclusion, and left Catholics in the position of being expected to trust — again — that the Vatican has handled episcopal misconduct appropriately.

For many Catholics, that trust is a bridge too far. And the Nienstedt resolution, however well-intentioned, will likely be remembered as another example of Vos estis’ failure to effect long-promised ecclesiastical reform.