St. Paul-Minneapolis archbishop voluntarily steps away from public ministry after allegation

Categories: Nation/World

By Catholic News Service

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis is voluntarily stepping aside from all public ministry, effective immediately, while St. Paul police investigate an allegation that he inappropriately touched a male minor on the buttocks in 2009 during a group photography session following a confirmation ceremony.

In a Dec. 17 letter to Catholics of the archdiocese, Archbishop Nienstedt called the allegation “absolutely and entirely false.”

“I have never once engaged in any inappropriate contact with a minor and I have tried to the very best of my ability to serve this archdiocese and the church faithfully, with honor and due regard for the rights of all, even those with whom I disagree,” he said.

“True, I am a sinner, but my sins do not include any kind of abuse of minors,” he said. “I have met victims and I know the lasting damage that such abuse causes.”

Auxiliary Bishop Lee A. Piche, in his role as a vicar general, will cover all of the archbishop’s public duties while the matter is being investigated, according to a Dec. 17 statement from the archdiocese. Father Charles Lachowitzer continues in his position as a vicar general and moderator of the curia.

The allegation of the single incident was brought to the police by a mandated reporter within the church. Upon learning of the allegation a week ago, the archdiocese instructed the mandated reporter to make the matter known to the police.

“The archdiocese is mindful of the due process concerns of those involved,” the statement said. “There must be justice and due consideration of the rights and dignity of every human person, both the individual involved and the archbishop. This is not only the bedrock of our beliefs as Catholics, but also of the justice system of our country.

“The steps taken in response to the allegation against the archbishop demonstrate and reaffirm the archdiocese’s commitment to disclosure.”

Archbishop follows steps

It added that “these steps further confirm that all within the archdiocese will be subject to the internal policies we have established. This is the position of the archdiocese and the archbishop himself. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the individual involved and the archbishop as justice is pursued and all may move forward on a path toward healing.”

In his letter, Archbishop Nienstedt said the identity of the person who made the allegation has not been made known to him.

The archbishop pointed out that he normally stands for confirmation photos “with one hand on my crozier (staff) and the other either on the right shoulder of the newly confirmed or on my pallium (the short stole), which hangs from my chest. I do that deliberately and there are hundreds of photographs to verify that fact.”

Archbishop Nienstedt wrote in his letter, “I hope that the investigations can be thorough but quick. I already long to be back in public ministry — to be able to serve as the Lord has called me to serve.”

“These days will give me the time to pray for you and the individual involved,” he added. “I ask that you pray for me too.” Two days earlier, at the invitation of a pastor, Archbishop Nienstedt apologized for the archdiocese’s handling of abuse allegations in a homily delivered at two Dec. 15 Masses at the parish church.

“I am here to apologize for the indignation that you justifiably feel. You deserve better,” Archbishop Nienstedt said at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis.

“The negative news reports about past incidents of clerical sexual abuse in this local church have rightly been met with shame, embarrassment and outrage that such heinous acts could be perpetrated by men who had taken priestly vows as well as bishops who failed to remove them from ministry,” Archbishop Nienstedt said.

“While only one of the crimes against minors has happened in this archdiocese since 2002, that is still one too many.”

The Catholic Spirit, archdiocesan newspaper, published Dec. 5 the names of 30 priests for whom credible allegations of abuse had been reported after the archdiocese gained court permission to release the names.

“The majority of those allegations go back to the 1970s and 1980s,” Archbishop Nienstedt said in his homily. “Again, that is not to excuse those actions or diminish the harm done to their victims. But it does indicate that progress is being made in reducing the incidence of such terrible misconduct.”

Archbishop Nienstedt has headed the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis since 2008; he had previously been its coadjutor archbishop.

“When I arrived here seven years ago, one of the first things I was told was that this whole issue of clerical sex abuse had been taken care of and I didn’t have to worry about it,” the archbishop told reporters between Masses. “Unfortunately I believed that. . . . And so my biggest apology today is to say I overlooked this. I should have investigated it a lot more than I did. When the story started to break at the end of September, I was as surprised as anyone else.”

In his homily, Archbishop Nienstedt said he and his staff had four goals: “to ensure safe environments for everyone in our churches, Catholic schools or religious programs, especially minors and vulnerable adults”; “to reach out to victims so as to promote their process of healing”; “to regain the trust of our Catholic faithful”; and “to reassure our clergy of our deep and abiding gratitude for their tireless and self-giving service, and to assure them of our commitment to them and to their legal and canonical rights.”