Archdiocese Persisted in Its Sin

By Mike Tighe
LaCross Tribune
June 25, 2015

Archbishop John Nienstedt addresses a news conference in St. Paul after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis filed for bankruptcy protection in January.

Unlike most Catholics, John Nienstedt must have been inoculated against guilt somewhere along his career path toward becoming an archbishop.

Or perhaps he has spent so much of his life pointing out the splinters in others’ eyes that he simply can’t see the log in his own.

How else could he shirk blame for criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that propelled his resignation just days after the charges were filed?

No individuals are charged in the 44-page legal document detailing six misdemeanor counts related to sexual abuse cover-ups. But it chronicles Nienstedt’s acceptance of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer’s escapades of drinking, drug use, cruising for sex among adults and boys, and abuse of teens that would have resulted in a lifetime in sack cloth and ashes for a lay person in confession.

Bishops, priests and lay staffers warned Nienstedt not to make Wehmeyer a pastor because of such behavior, for which the archdiocese had sent the priest to treatment for sexual disorders in 2004 and ordered him to attend Sexaholics Anonymous.

Turning a deaf ear, Nienstedt promoted Wehmeyer to pastor in 2009. That enabled the priest to sexually abuse a 12-year-old boy and his 14-year-old brother between 2010 and 2013.

Nienstedt, who is under investigation for a possible personal relationship with Wehmeyer, said in his resignation letter: “I leave with a clear conscience knowing that my team and I have put in place solid protocols to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults.”

The archbishop’s clear conscience seems odd when a guilty one prompted Wehmeyer to plead guilty in November 2012 to 20 felony counts of criminal sexual conduct with minors and possession of child pornography.

Sentenced to five years in prison in February 2013, Wehmeyer also was charged in November 2014 with second-degree criminal assault of a teenager at a Chippewa County, Wis., campground in 2011.

While the Wehmeyer case is the archdiocese’s most egregious in recent years, sexual abuse conspiracies have plagued the Twin Cities diocese for a half-century.

I have kept my lips sealed — except for a few private rants — about the moral vacuum that ultimately forced the archdiocese into bankruptcy because of millions of dollars of judgments for abused victims.

Nienstedt’s claim of “clear conscience” and the next two sentences of his self-serving swan song loosened my lockjaw:

“I ask for continued prayers for the well-being of this Archdiocese and its future leaders. I also ask for your continued prayers for me.”

Two critical things are missing from his abdication: an apology and a request for prayers for the victims.

Clearly, he still doesn’t get it, just as archbishops and auxiliaries before him ignored Jesus Christ’s charge to protect the most vulnerable.

Writing about the web of cover-ups is agonizing. Of course, my angst pales in comparison with the victims’ pain — but part of my discomfort results from my own misplaced trust.

I trusted the late Archbishop John R. Roach, who not only headed the archdiocese from 1975 to 1995 but also was the U.S. bishops’ president from 1980 to 1983.

I trusted then-Monsignor Roach as a mentor during my seminary days in the late 1960s. He even got me my first job in journalism when I was resetting my career plans.

I also respected his leadership in the 1980s, when I was managing editor of the archdiocesan newspaper. My regard waned as the cover-ups surfaced, especially when I wrote a story about his court testimony in a sex abuse case — and he ordered the story spiked.

I also respected and trusted Archbishop Harry Flynn, brought in to head the archdiocese in part because of his reputation for healing the sexual abuse wounds in the Lafayette, La., diocese.

Considered an expert in the church’s national initiatives to protect children, Flynn proved to have feet of clay in the Gopher State. He raised eyebrows last year when he said more than 125 times in a deposition in a suit against the archdiocese that he didn’t remember how he had handled sexual abuse cases as head of the 12-county Minnesota archdiocese.

I also had trusted and respected several other priests and officials snagged in the cover-ups, only to feel betrayed when they talked of contrition but winked at perdition.

Oddly enough, even though Nienstedt doesn’t face trial in a secular court, he might have trouble getting a “clear conscience” plea to fly before a Vatican tribunal that Pope Francis established to investigate bishops accused of failing victims of sexual abuse.

In shielding a few lascivious men in misguided attempts to protect the institution and their careers, Roach, Flynn, Nienstedt and their lieutenants scandalized many within and outside of the church.

Most priests I know, including virtually all of my former classmates, are good, solid, honorable men — but they often labor in the shadow of others’ shame.

And many victims still thirst for justice. A priest’s five-year sentence for abusing boys will be over long before victims overcome the physical and mental damage. Despite large monetary settlements for some, no amount of money can erase the treachery that has ruined so many lives.

The shortest sentence in the Bible arguably is “Jesus wept.” Today, Jesus continues to weep.









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