The embattled archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis and his deputy resigned Monday after years of pressure, an indication Pope Francis is making good on his promise that no one is above the law when it comes to covering up for clergy who sexually abuse children.
Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Anthony Piche stepped down after Minnesota prosecutors charged their archdiocese with having failed to protect children from unspeakable harm by a pedophile priest who was later convicted of molesting two boys. Separately, the Vatican indicted Jozef Wesolowski, its own former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, on charges of sexually abusing minors in the Caribbean country and possessing child pornography. He will be the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to stand trial for a sex crime.
The developments came days after Francis approved the creation of a new tribunal inside the Vatican to hear cases of bishops accused of failing to protect minors, answering years of criticism that top-ranked churchmen have long been immune to punishment for ignoring or covering up for priests who rape and molest children. It’s not clear if the tribunal — once it becomes functioning — would handle the cases of Nienstedt and Piche, since they are no longer in office.
They quit under the code of canon law that allows bishops to resign before they retire because of illness or some other “grave” reason that makes them unfit for office.
Earlier this month, prosecutors charged the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as a corporation with having “turned a blind eye” to repeated reports of inappropriate behavior by the priest. The complaint did not name any individuals. The charges came two years after diocesan canon lawyer-turned-whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger alleged widespread cover-up of clergy sex misconduct in the archdiocese, saying archbishops and their top staff lied to the public and ignored the U.S. bishops’ pledge to have no tolerance of priests who abuse.
Haselberger, who was Nienstedt’s archivist, accused the church of using a chaotic system of record-keeping that helped conceal the backgrounds of guilty priests who remained on assignment. She said she repeatedly warned Nienstedt and his aides about the risk of keeping accused priests in ministry, but they took action only in one case. As a result of raising alarms, she said she was eventually shut out of meetings about priest misconduct, and later resigned.
Nienstedt refused to resign after Haselberger’s accusations, and later after announcing that allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior had been made against him. He denied misconduct and the archdiocese hired a firm to investigate. No results were ever announced and recently Nienstedt hired his own attorney to look at the matter again.
In a statement Monday, Nienstedt said he was stepping down to give the archdiocese a new beginning. But he insisted he was leaving “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.”
In a statement, Piche said: “The people of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis need healing and hope. I was getting in the way of that, and so I had to resign.”
Monday’s resignations bring to 18 the number of bishops who have stepped down after being publicly criticized for covering up for abusers, according to Anne Barrett Doyle of the online resource BishopAccountability.org.
In April, Francis accepted the resignation of U.S. bishop Robert Finn, who had been convicted in a U.S. court of failing to report a suspected child abuser. Francis has pledged that not even high-ranking churchmen — “daddy’s boys” he called them — will get away with abuse or cover-up.
The criminal charges against the archdiocese in Minnesota stem from its handling of Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for molesting two boys and faces prosecution involving a third in Wisconsin.
Prosecutors say church leaders failed to respond to “numerous and repeated reports of troubling conduct” by Wehmeyer from the time he entered seminary until he was removed from the priesthood in 2015. The criminal complaint says many people — including parishioners, fellow priests and parish staff — reported issues with Wehmeyer, and many of those claims were discounted.
Jeff Anderson, an attorney who has filed lawsuits against the Catholic Church over alleged abuse, said Monday’s resignations are part of an “important reckoning” for the failure of top officials to respond appropriately when priests were accused of abusing children.
But David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says the Vatican should do much more to clean up the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
He said the acceptance of the two resignations “doesn’t feel like reform” and that Francis should move to defrock top church leaders in the archdiocese.
The resignations came on the same day the Vatican announced it was putting Wesolowski, the former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, on trial in a Vatican court. Wesolowski, who has already been defrocked after being convicted in a canon law court, now faces possible jail time if convicted by the criminal tribunal of the Vatican City State.
The case has been highly sensitive, given that the Polish-born Wesolowski was an ambassador of the Holy See — a direct representative of the pope and not just one of the world’s 440,000 priests — and had been ordained both a priest and a bishop by St. John Paul II.