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Nienstedt denies any clergy sexual abuse cover-up, regrets 'lost confidence'

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Archbishop John C. Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt responded for the first time to reporters' questions today since an MPR News investigation forced the archdiocese's response to clergy misconduct into the spotlight. "I accept responsibility for addressing the issues that have been raised," he said.
AP Photo/File 2010

Archbishop John Nienstedt said he accepts responsibility for addressing the unfolding clergy sexual abuse crisis and regrets that a growing number of parishioners and priests in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have "lost confidence" in him.

However, he denied any abuse cover-up or illegal actions and repeated the archdiocese's claim that there are no offending priests in active ministry.

• Full coverage: Archdiocese under scrutiny

"We have no reason to believe [Robert Kapoun] is a danger to the community."

Nienstedt's remarks came in an e-mailed response to questions from MPR News. It's the first time the archbishop has answered questions about the scandal since MPR News began publishing investigative reports in late September.   

"As head of this local Church, I accept responsibility for addressing the issues that have been raised and am completely committed to finding the truth and fixing the problems that exist," Nienstedt wrote. "My highest priorities are to ensure the safety of our children and to restore the trust of Catholics and our clergy. I will do everything in my power to do so."  

An MPR News investigation found Nienstedt and other top church officials failed to warn parishioners of a priest's sexual addiction. That priest, the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, is serving five years in prison for sexually abusing two children and possessing child pornography.

Subsequent reports showed the archdiocese kept "borderline illegal" pornography found on the computer of the Rev. Jon Shelley in 2004 and gave extra payments to priests who sexually abused children.

In the Shelley case, police first learned of the images this year when Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer who resigned in April, called authorities. The subsequent police investigation did not find child pornography, though the lead investigator questioned whether the archdiocese turned over all the evidence. St. Paul Police recently  reopened the case.  

Nienstedt continues to decline interview requests, even as some parishioners and priests now call for his resignation.  

Nienstedt's top deputy, the Rev. Peter Laird, stepped down as vicar general of the archdiocese on Oct. 3. Former Archbishop Harry Flynn resigned as chair of the board of trustees at the University of St. Thomas on Oct. 17.  

The departures follow the exit of the Rev. Kevin McDonough as head of the archdiocese's child safety program last month. McDonough played a central role in clergy sexual abuse cases as vicar general under Flynn and former Archbishop John Roach.

  Nienstedt, who replaced Flynn in 2008, said the archdiocese may have violated its own procedures in handling abuse cases.

MPR NEWS: Since your arrival as archbishop, has the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis followed the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the Essential Norms?

ARCHBISHOP JOHN NIENSTEDT: Yes. 

MPR NEWS: Why didn't you go to police about the images found on Father Jon Shelley's computer?

NIENSTEDT: The analysis completed in 2004 did not find evidence of possession of child pornography. The images that [former chancellor for canonical affairs Jennifer] Haselberger showed to coworkers were of pop-up ads. Pop-up ads are unsolicited and often attach to the hard drive without the user's awareness or permission. 

The St. Paul police completed a 7-month review of the same material from the hard drive that was analyzed in 2004 and came to the same conclusion: there is no evidence of possession of child pornography.   

MPR NEWS: Why were priests such as Robert Kapoun receiving additional retirement payments? Who authorized those payments, why did they continue, and which priests are still getting additional payments? What action did you take when Jennifer Haselberger reported these payments to you?    

NIENSTEDT: Every bishop is required by canon law to provide financial support for priests of his diocese. In some cases, it was determined that offenders should be removed from active priestly ministry, be subject to compliance with our monitoring program, and required to undergo therapy and spiritual direction to avoid reoffending. 

"Our own investigations give us reason to believe that our policies and procedures may not have been uniformly followed and that is a serious issue we have been addressing."

These decisions were made due to a number of factors, including the projected likelihood that the priest would be not be able to find secular employment or be a candidate for laicization.   

MPR NEWS: Has anything changed with the monitoring of Father Robert Kapoun since our story ran on Oct. 9?    

NIENSTEDT: The monitoring program is modeled after probation programs that include periodic visitations and determination of compliance with expected restrictions. Fr. Kapoun has met all requirements of the program, despite the inferences made by the media. We have no reason to believe he is a danger to the community.   

  MPR NEWS: Why do you need a new task force? It appears, based on our reporting, that the procedures the archdiocese already had in place were not being followed.   

  NIENSTEDT: Our own investigations give us reason to believe that our policies and procedures may not have been uniformly followed and that is a serious issue we have been addressing. At the same time, we believe that we need truly independent analysis from a group of outside and impartial experts to help tell how we can do better. That may mean changes or additions to policies, procedures or practices.  It may mean better auditing to ensure compliance with current policies, procedures and practices.  

The Task Force will have unprecedented authority to examine any and all issues associated with clergy sexual abuse. Its findings and recommendations will be welcomed and implemented.   

  MPR NEWS: Why haven't you released the names of offending priests?    

NIENSTEDT: There are no offending priests in active ministry in our archdiocese. Anyone who is a known danger to a minor or vulnerable adult is immediately removed from ministry and investigated. There are, however, priests and other members of the clergy who have been falsely accused and exonerated. It would be wrong to publicize their names as offenders when they have not been proven to be offenders. Clergy members should be given the same rights as other citizens.     

MPR NEWS: What is your response to attorney Jeff Anderson's accusations that the archdiocese is engaged in a longstanding and ongoing cover-up of child sex abuse by priests?    

"There are no offending priests in active ministry in our archdiocese."

NIENSTEDT: That is simply not true. Anyone who is a known danger to a minor or vulnerable adult is immediately removed from ministry and investigated. We immediately contact civil authorities in both cases. Until an investigation is completed, the accused remains out of active ministry.  

  MPR NEWS: Did you or anyone on your staff break the law?

  NIENSTEDT: No. The staff at the archdiocese, including me, is expected to uphold all civil and Church laws at all times, and I have been given no reason to believe we have not.     

MPR NEWS: What do you say to priests and parishioners who are now  calling for your resignation?

  NIENSTEDT: I am sorry they have lost confidence in me. As head of this local Church, I accept responsibility for addressing the issues that have been raised and am completely committed to finding the truth and fixing the problems that exist. My highest priorities are to ensure the safety of our children and to restore the trust of Catholics and our clergy. I will do everything in my power to do so.     

MPR NEWS: Have you offered your resignation to Pope Francis or to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the papal nuncio?     

NIENSTEDT: No.