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Archbishop won’t resign, vows to change church

By Elizabeth Mohr

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Responding to calls for his resignation, Archbishop John Nienstedt said Wednesday that he will remain at the helm of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Nienstedt has come under fire in recent months for his handling of clergy sex abuse cases.

In a rare interview with the Pioneer Press on Wednesday, Nienstedt answered questions about his handling of sex abuse cases, allegations of his own possible sexual misconduct, his efforts to become more “hands on,” and how he intends to make the church whole again.

The interview came amid accusations and lawsuits against the archdiocese, church officials and priests regarding alleged child abuse and what some have called cover-up of crimes.

Critics — including canon lawyer Jennifer M. Haselberger, who served as chancellor for canonical affairs at the archdiocese from 2008 to 2013 and has been the whistleblower at the center of the controversy — say Nienstedt and his predecessors did not take action to remove credibly accused priests.

Nienstedt has maintained that he never knowingly covered up any abuse of children. In court depositions he has admitted that he knew of priests who were accused and were under the church’s internal monitoring program, but weren’t removed from parishes. Part of the public outcry against the church stems from the archdiocese’s past reluctance to make public the names of accused priests.

Instead, Nienstedt said, in the interview, “We always informed the people that needed to know.” Those who were informed included trustees of the parish, parish staff and supervisors who were in charge of monitoring accused priests.

“So I thought that there were enough constraints that we wouldn’t have to go public with a list,” Nienstedt said. “It was trying to weigh the balance: How much do you tell? How much do people need to know? And the question of will they act out again?”

He said, as he has in the past, that when he was appointed archbishop in 2008, he thought the issue of clergy abuse was being properly handled.

Nienstedt said he relied on assurances from his predecessor, Archbishop Harry Flynn, and former Vicar General Kevin McDonough, who was the chief point person on priest sexual abuse and continued in that role from 2008 to the fall of 2013 as “delegate for safe environment.”

“When I arrived in 2008, I said I didn’t think that this was any longer a problem,” Nienstedt said. “And I did that because I felt, number one, Archbishop Flynn and Father McDonough had national reputations for being experts in this area. Father McDonough himself assured me that there was no problems and we didn’t have anyone in the ministry who would harm minors, that we knew of, and I had no reason to doubt him.

“But I think that I know now I could have asked more probing questions. I left those questions to members of the staff, figuring that they would be taking care of the matter and, if not, that they would let me know. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.”

In his interview, he said there were many “distractions” when he came aboard in 2008 — including creation of a new strategic plan, a call for “new evangelization,” and a tough economy — that neede   d his attention.

“All of those things were big distractions. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t concerned about safe environments and about children being in danger. I was,” Nienstedt said.

 He placed trust in his predecessors, he said, in part because he assumed all bishops were acting on the same charter, adopted in 2002 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which governed protection of children. He said he “took it to heart” and took steps to implement the policies in New Ulm, where he was a bishop at the time.

“So when I came (here), my experience was, we did it, I presumed   everybody else did it as well,” Nienstedt said.

He said he held meetings with his staff and colleagues and asked questions about who had been accused and the status of the monitoring program.

“So it’s not like I ignored it. But I have seen since then that the problems inherent in the system, as I’m particularly mentioning the communications program or problem, was more broad than I had ever anticipated.”

He called it a “silo mentality,” in which information came in but wasn’t shared within the archdiocese .

In a column to be published in today’s Catholic Spirit newsletter, Nienstedt calls the issue of child abuse “a terrible scandal” and says “this is the work of the church we are called to address at this time.”

He wrote, “I have acknowledged my responsibility in the current crisis we face, and I also take responsibility for leading our archdiocese to a new and better day.”

Nienstedt said he is not planning to resign and will, instead, “apply these hard lessons that I have learned over the past months,” according to his Catholic Spirit column.

The archbishop wrote that he is creating “a new leadership team that operates under the philosophy of ‘Victims First’” and that he’s appointing a victim liaison. He also said the church has reached out to victims of abuse for their input.

Nienstedt addressed an investigation he requested into claims that he had past inappropriate sexual relationships or contact with other men — something he has denied. He has said he expects to be vindicated.

Asked in Wednesday’s interview if he’s ever had sexual relationships with men since becoming archbishop, Nienstedt said, “No. Not even before.”

He’s looking toward the future of the church, he said, and “working very hard” to make things right and regain trust.

“I want people to know I’m on their side. I’m a priest, I’m a bishop. I want to be that bridge between people and God, and I don’t want to have anything interfere with that. So I think the people that know me well know I’ve got their best interests at heart. I think perhaps it’s people who don’t know me well and have gotten what I might call a false impression ... (who) have questions about my ability to lead. But I’m very confident that I can.”

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