Priest demands Nienstedt explain handling of clergy sexual abuse

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt
Archbishop John C. Nienstedt in a 2010 file photo.
Craig Lassig/AP

A popular St. Paul priest on Sunday accused Archbishop John Nienstedt of arrogance and demanded an explanation for the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

"He needs to stand before us and explain himself," the Rev. Stephen O'Gara, pastor of the Church of the Assumption, said in a Sunday homily. "Only then will we have the respect called to his office. It's about arrogance, and we all fall victim to arrogance in some degree or in some place in our lives. But this is more. This is not some small matter. This is a big deal. It's the first time, I must say, in 69 years that I'm embarrassed to be Catholic."

O'Gara's homily references the recent revelations of the handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. An MPR News investigation has found Nienstedt and other church leaders failed to warn parishioners of a priest's sexual misconduct, did not turn over possible child pornography to police for nine years and gave special payments to offending priests. Many of the revelations come from former church official Jennifer Haselberger, who resigned in April after Nienstedt and others failed to follow the church's sexual abuse policies.

Full investigation: Twin Cities Archdiocese under scrutiny

"These are difficult days," O'Gara told parishioners. "They are hurtful and painful, and I think it's time that we come clean."

A spokesman for the archdiocese was not immediately available for comment Tuesday morning.

Assumption Catholic Church
Assumption Catholic Church, 51 7th St. W., in downtown St. Paul Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Parishioners at the downtown St. Paul church applauded O'Gara's remarks, and someone uploaded an audio recording of the homily to YouTube.

Other priests have come forward in recent weeks to challenge Nienstedt's leadership.

The Rev. Mike Tegeder of St. Francis Cabrini Church in Minneapolis called for Nienstedt's resignation. The Rev. Bill Deziel of the Church of St. Peter, in a church bulletin, asked for a "do-over" of archdiocesan leadership. And the Rev. Michael Anderson praised Haselberger for revealing the archdiocese's actions.

"I think (Haselberger) is a heroic person who could no longer live with a duplicitous system that said publicly that it was following strict guidelines to protect children but privately withheld information and continued to move predators from parish to parish," Anderson, of the Church of St. Bernard in St. Paul, wrote in an Oct. 13 church bulletin.

As the scandal stays in the news, some priests worry that parishioners will stop donating money on Sundays, which could make it difficult for struggling parishes to stay afloat. The archdiocese recently delayed a capital campaign, and earlier this year, church officials met with bankruptcy experts in anticipation of lawsuits by victims of clergy sexual abuse allowed under a new state law.

The Rev. Rodger Bauman, pastor of Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale, sent a letter to parishioners this month encouraging them to continue giving to the parish.

"In the wake of the terrible reports in the news, some parishioners here at Guardian Angels, and I would imagine in every parish in the Archdiocese, have expressed concern that none of their contributions to the church go to the Archdiocese," Bauman wrote. "The majority of your contributions to Guardian Angels stay right here to pay salaries, support programs and keep the doors open."

Nienstedt has responded to the scandal by creating a task force to review church policies on child sexual abuse. Although the archbishop has characterized the task force as independent, its members were chosen by a priest selected by Nienstedt who will also control access to church files.

"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 in an email to MPR News on Oct. 23. "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 reporter Tom Scheck contributed to this report.