Nienstedt Resignation: a First Step toward Healing

Star Tribune
June 15, 2015

Archbishop John Nienstedt stepped down as head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on Monday because, he said in a statement, “my leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of His Church and those who perform them.”

The relief that washed over many Minnesotans — Roman Catholics and the rest — with Monday’s news that Archbishop John Nienstedt has resigned should not be mistaken for a sense that all is now well within the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Rather, for some time, Nienstedt’s departure has been widely seen as a sad necessity. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has called it a requisite first step in a long effort to restore the reputation of the region’s largest religious organization — a reputation sullied by child molestation and an alleged coverup so widespread that both criminal charges and a civil case were filed against the entire archdiocese in Ramsey County District Court on June 5.

Fairly or not, the 68-year-old Nienstedt became the face of those charges — a fact that, to his credit, he seemed to acknowledge in a statement announcing his resignation early Monday. He was stepping aside, he said, “to give the Archdiocese a new beginning amidst the many challenges we face.” Exiting with him is Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, whose resignation statement said “the people of the archdiocese … need healing and hope. I was getting in the way of that, so I had to resign.”

At least temporarily, archdiocesan leadership will be in the hands of the Rev. Bernard Hebda, who will hold the title “apostolic administrator” in St. Paul, while continuing to function as coadjutor archbishop of Newark, N.J.

While Hebda can usher in a transition, the responsibility to lead the archdiocese back to trust and moral authority will fall to the next archbishop and the pontiff who will appoint him, Pope Francis.

Many Minnesota hopes are riding on that appointment. Since before statehood, Minnesotans have looked to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for service as well spiritual guidance, relying on its schools, colleges, hospitals, homeless shelters and other good works. All of those services have been put at some risk by the sexual-abuse scandal in clergy ranks; all of them will benefit if new leaders are able to credibly assure the community that Catholic churches will not knowingly put children in harm’s way.

Pope Francis, admired for the humility and inclusivity he has exhibited in two years as the Bishop of Rome, has also shown an unprecedented willingness to hold high-level church leaders accountable for their personnel decisions. Last week, the pope announced the formation of a Vatican tribunal to adjudicate complaints that bishops failed to take action against priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Before Nienstedt’s resignation, that papal move may have been greeted with worry about more reputation-damaging revelations in some Minnesota quarters. Today it strikes us as reassuring. It signals that at its highest level, the church is attuned to the injury this archdiocese has suffered and aware that it now needs an extraordinary leader. We hope Pope Francis is looking for someone a lot like himself.








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