Minnesota Archbishop Resigns In Wake Of Criminal Charges Over Sex Abuse
The head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has resigned in the wake of criminal charges for covering up sexual abuse of children.
The Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a deputy bishop resigned on Monday after prosecutors recently charged the archdiocese with having failed to protect youths from abuse by pedophile priests.
“My leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of His Church and those who perform them,” Archbishop Nienstedt said. “Thus my decision to step down.”
The resignations come about 10 days after prosecutors in Minnesota filed criminal charges against the archdiocese for its mishandling of repeated complaints of sexual misconduct against a priest and a few days after the Vatican announced the formation of a tribunal to hear cases against bishops accused of neglecting or covering up abuse cases — an unprecedented mechanism but one whose details are yet unknown.
Under Pope Francis, the Vatican has begun to step up efforts to hold bishops accountable for covering up or failing to take action against priests accused of abuse. Abuse survivors had long said that this was the great unfinished piece of business in the three decades since the abuse scandal first became public with a notorious case in Louisiana. Victims over the years have accused the Vatican of allowing prelates to go unpunished, and so turned to civil and criminal courts to pursue charges.
In accepting the resignations, the pope appointed the Rev. Bernard A. Hebda, an assistant archbishop of Newark, as apostolic administrator to oversee the archdiocese. The Vatican also announced on Monday that it would open a trial in July of its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Jozef Wesolowski, on charges of sexually abusing boys while he served in the Caribbean and of possessing child pornography after he was sent back to Rome in 2013.
Archbishop Nienstedt is stepping down two months after the resignation of Archbishop Robert W. Finn in Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri, where he had weathered years of controversy over his handling of a priest convicted of taking pornographic photographs of young girls. Archbishop Finn was himself convicted on a misdemeanor charge of failing to report the priest — the first bishop convicted in the abuse scandal’s long history.
They are hardly the first bishops to resign under scrutiny or accusations that they failed abuse victims. Since the papacy of John Paul II — now St. John Paul — 16 other bishops have resigned or been forced from office under a cloud of accusations that they mishandled abuse cases, according to research by BishopAccontability.org, an advocacy group based in Boston. Archbishop Nienstedt is the 17th, by that group’s count.
The archbishop had become one of the most embattled figures in the American Catholic hierarchy, under fire in the courts, in the pews and on newspaper editorial pages. He had refused to resign about a year ago after coming under sharp criticism from his own former chancellor for canonical affairs, Jennifer Haselberger, who charged that the church used a chaotic system of record keeping that helped conceal the backgrounds of guilty priests who remained on assignment.
He did, however, apologize at the time for his conduct, saying that while he had never knowingly covered up sexual abuse by clergy, he had become “too trusting of our internal process and not as hands-on as I could have been in matters of priest misconduct.”
On Monday, he said he would “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.”
Ed Morrissey notes that this has been an issue among Catholics in the area for some time now:
In the Twin Cities, the impact of the two resignations could go in a couple of different directions. The new revelations about the lack of action on Wehmeyer and four other priests named in the indictment angered people all over again. Priests were addressing it during Mass to acknowledge the anger and frustration from parishioners who thought the archdiocese and the Church as a whole had learned their lesson. On the other hand, the staff at the chancery has changed significantly in response to the later scandals, and the new vicar general — a friend of mine — is a no-nonsense priest who takes the job of righting the ship very, very seriously.
The resignations of Nienstadt and Piche may give the archdiocese a chance to truly turn a corner, bolstered by a Pope whose own anger and frustration over the scandals has become very well known.
This may not be the end of Archbishop Nienstedt’s troubles. At the time that the criminal charges were filed against the Archdiocese, prosecutors made clear that their investigation was not over and that the possibility existed that charges could also be brought against individual church officials who were involved in covering up abuse during the relevant time period. Whether this could include Nienstadt or others is unclear, but the implication that the prosecutor was prepared to but a Catholic Bishop on trial if the evidence supported it was fairly clear and his resignation now would not remove the possibility of future criminal charges. This move, which clearly was something that came at the behest of Rome if not on the direct orders of Pope Francis himself, is yet another example of the extent to which this Pope is taking steps to address the sex abuse scandal in a far more aggressive manner than either of his predecessors, something which can also be seen in both last week’s announcement of a tribunal that will review the issue and the announcement today that the former Papal Nuncio to the Dominican Republican will face trial for alleged sexual abuse while he was in office. Pope Francis has also been more direct in his condemnation of the abuse than his predecessors have been, and one gets the impression that this is more than just window dressing and rhetoric on his part.
The question, of course, is whether the rest of the Vatican is as serious about the matter as Francis appears to be. There’s certainly reason to think that the answer to that question is no, or at least that the desire to protect individual priests and bishops may still be outweighing the need for the truth to be acknowledged no matter how painful and embarrassing it may be. One gets the impression, though, that the forces pushing the Church toward taking responsibility for this mess may be too powerful to resist. The sex abuse scandal has shaken the Church across the world to the point where even nation’s like Ireland are seeing people drift away. Even if the Third World continues to be a source of growth for the Vatican, that can’t continue for very much longer without it becoming a real problem. More importantly, as we’ve seen in Minnesota, law enforcement seems determined to get to the center of the scandal all on its own whether Church officials cooperate or not. Given all of that, even the most conservative members of the Curia will likely recognize, eventually, that resistance is not only futile, but ultimately self-destructive. The motives behind it may be quite self-interested, but the Catholic Church finally seems to be addressing this seriously.