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Twin Cities archbishop under scrutiny for same-sex relationships, ex-official says

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By Emily Gurnon

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt is under investigation for inappropriate sexual behavior with men, according to former archdiocese official Jennifer Haselberger.

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The archdiocese confirmed an investigation, saying in written statements that it hired an independent firm to conduct it.

“Upon my direction, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is conducting an internal investigation involving allegations made against me,” Nienstedt wrote in a statement issued Tuesday. “These allegations are absolutely and entirely false.”

They involved alleged events from “at least” a decade ago, before he became head of the Twin Cities archdiocese in 2008, Nienstedt wrote.

In an accompanying statement, Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche said the claims did not involve “anything criminal or with minors.”

Nienstedt, 67, was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached for comment, said archdiocese interim communications director Anne Steffens. She said she could not address other questions.

The investigation was first reported by Commonweal, a Catholic magazine based in New York.

Haselberger, former chancellor for canonical affairs for the archdiocese turned whistleblower, said she was interviewed April 16 by two attorneys from the Minneapolis law firm of Greene Espel for the investigation.

“All of the questions asked of me related to the archbishop’s conduct with adult men,” Haselberger said.

She also believes that Nienstedt was accused of retaliating against those who rebuffed his advances or questioned his behavior.

Among the investigators’ topics was Nienstedt’s relationship with the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to sexually abusing two boys in St. Paul, Haselberger said.

In Wehmeyer’s personnel file, Haselberger saw a note from Wehmeyer thanking Nienstedt for a dinner they had shared. She also saw a note from Nienstedt to former internal counsel Andrew Eisenzimmer asking for help in arranging a visit to Wehmeyer when Wehmeyer was at an inpatient sex-offender treatment facility before sentencing.

“Nothing good could happen from the archbishop visiting a priest in a sex-offender treatment program,” Haselberger said. “The whole thing seemed like a very bad idea to me.”

At the time, the archbishop had not met with Wehmeyer’s victims or their mother, Haselberger said. She did not know if he has done so since.

Haselberger said that to her knowledge, Nienstedt never visited two other priests who had been imprisoned while he was archbishop: John Bussmann and Christopher Wenthe. Both were convicted of criminal sexual conduct involving women, though Wenthe’s conviction was reversed in April.

Through discussions with others, Haselberger learned that she was one of about 10 people whom investigators questioned. She declined to say who they were.

She resigned from the archdiocese in April 2013 in protest of what she called mishandling of sexual abuse claims against clergy. The Wehmeyer case was a chilling example: Nienstedt had made him pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul despite evidence of sexual misconduct in previous years.

The Commonweal article quoted Nienstedt as saying the only accusation against him was of “improper touching” of the neck and was made by a former priest.

He called the allegations a “personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage.”

In 2012, Nienstedt led an archdiocese campaign supporting the proposed marriage amendment, which would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The archdiocese contributed $650,000 to the Minnesota Catholic Conference to support pro-amendment work. The amendment failed.

The archbishop has taken other opportunities to speak out against homosexuality. At an August 2013 Catholic conference in Napa, Calif., he described homosexual activity as among “the forces threatening the stability of our civilization,” whose source is Satan.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests issued a statement in response to the allegations.

“We don’t care about Nienstedt’s private behavior, unless it involves sexually harassing underlings or makes him unable or unwilling to expose predators in his archdiocese,” said a written statement by SNAP’s Barbara Dorris.

But people with sexual secrets are “less willing to report the sexual secrets of (their) colleagues and supervisors, especially if those secrets involve criminal behavior,” Dorris said.

St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla said the department has turned over investigatory information regarding archdiocese cases to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. He declined to say whether police investigated alleged misconduct by Nienstedt involving adults.

Dennis Gerhardstein, spokesman for the county attorney’s office, said it had not received a case from the St. Paul police or any other law enforcement agency related to the archdiocese’s internal investigation on Nienstedt.

Prosecutors declined to charge Nienstedt following an allegation that surfaced in December. A teenage boy said the archbishop had touched him on the buttocks during a confirmation photo shoot in 2009. Nienstedt said the charge was false.

Nienstedt served as the bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm from 2001 to 2007. Prior to that, he was a bishop in the archdiocese of Detroit.

Piche said in his written statement that the allegations were reported to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C., an ecclesiastical diplomat from the Vatican who oversees bishops in the United States. The results of the investigation would be shared with him when it is completed, Piche said.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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