When will pope notice trouble in Minnesota church?

A Catholic steeple in Minnesota: What's next?
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A reporter who has covered abuse issues in the Catholic Church said Friday that a distinguishing feature of the developing scandal in Minnesota is the gender of the church official who brought it to light -- a woman working in "a hierarchy of celibate men."

"In Minnesota, what you've got is the kind of scandal that we have seen in many other parts of the country: a bishop who withheld information," said Jason Berry, an investigative journalist and author. "What is unique to me about the story ... is the role of the canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, who spoke out, told the bishop he had to come clean, if you will, [and] is no longer in her position."

"I think having a woman within that realm of governing really made a difference in this case, because she saw an outrage and she spoke out." He said the "looming question" is "how long it will take for the story in Minnesota to reach the desk of the pope."

John Thavis, former Vatican bureau chief The Catholic News Service, agreed. "Things have to get pretty bad before Minneapolis-St. Paul pops up on the radar, unfortunately," he said. "It may take a long time before this comes to the pope's attention. People don't necessarily like to bring the pope bad news."

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Thavis and Berry appeared on The Daily Circuit to discuss the recent series of reports by MPR News on the handling of troubled or abusive priests in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The developing story has led to calls for Archbishop John Nienstedt to resign. Already, key figures in the archdiocese have resigned their leadership positions.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis celebrates the last mass of his visit to Brazil, at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, on July 28, 2013.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

In his first response to the MPR News reports, Nienstedt said Wednesday that he would not resign and he insisted that no offending priests remain in active ministry in the archdiocese. He said he regretted that parishioners and priests had lost confidence in him. On Thursday, he announced he would appoint an outside firm to investigate whether any currently serving priests might pose a danger to children. He has also appointed a task force to investigate clergy misconduct.

"The first thing that must be acknowledged is that over the last decade some serious mistakes have been made," Nienstedt wrote Thursday in his regular church column. "There is reason to question whether or not the policies and procedures were uniformly followed. There is also a question as to the prudence of the judgments that have been made."

That grammatical construction is familiar to Berry.

"These mistakes continue to be made," he said. "Whenever someone says, 'Mistakes were made,' you want to know why it's in the passive voice. Who made the mistakes? Why did they make them? Why didn't they come clean beforehand? This is part of a continuing pattern. It's not just a minor aberration."

Thavis said the very familiarity of the problem is distressing.

"It's a very disheartening situation," he said. "I covered this issue for some 12 years at the Vatican ... and the whole narrative from the Vatican's side was, 'We're on a learning curve.' At first there was denial, then there was assessment of the problem, acceptance that something had to be done. U.S. bishops came up with norms; they were approved by the Vatican — they were actually strengthened by the Vatican in later years — and there was a feeling that we've turned the corner on this. We've put safeguards into place.

"When things like this happen ... there's the feeling even among church officials that some people haven't learned a thing. The learning curve did not always apply. And there's a recognition that whatever procedures and policies have been put into place, they're only as strong as local implementation."

That implementation, Berry and Thavis said, is up to the bishops to enforce. But holding the bishops accountable for doing so is made difficult by "an elite power structure" that gives them "a de facto immunity," Berry said.

"Even men who grossly violate the expectations and performance of their office can be removed as bishops ... but they don't lose their title," he said. "Putting together an advisory board to go through the files? This has happened time and again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. It really comes down to whether a bishop has the moral fiber to recognize that something terrible has been done and to take swift action and to deal with law enforcement."


Twin Cities Archdiocese under Scrutiny
The entire collection of MPR News reports on the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Francis faces big decisions on sex abuse
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