As Nienstedt steps back, an auxiliary bishop steps into the breach

Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche
The Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche speaks to the faithful on the steps of the Capitol before the rosary procession May 6, 2012.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché will take over Archbishop John Nienstedt's public duties while the Twin Cities Catholic church leader steps back from public ministry during a police investigation. Nienstedt is being investigated by police for allegedely touching a boy on the buttocks.

• Related: Archbishop under investigation

Piché, a Minnesota native, must temporarily be the public face of an archdiocese that is facing fierce criticism for how it handled clergy sexual abuse.

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Raised in Minneapolis, Piché first started attending Mass at St. Charles Borromeo in the St. Anthony suburb. The oldest of seven children, he took a special interest in the church as a youngster.

The Catholic Spirit newspaper, which is owned and operated by the archdiocese, wrote in 2009 that Piché started talking about becoming a priest when he was in the eighth grade.

"We always respected the priesthood...and I think that was the thing that impressed him," Piché's father, LeRoy, told the newspaper. "We let the Holy Spirit do the work, as we do in every case."

Piché has served as auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese since 2009. Before that, he was named one of Archbishop John Nienstedt's two vicars general — a post he continues to hold alongside the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, who was appointed in early October to replace the Rev. Peter Laird as the archbishop's other vicar general and top deputy.

Piché attended St. Paul Seminary and was ordained in 1984. He first served as an associate pastor of the Church of St. Mark in St. Paul. He also taught undergraduate philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.

Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche gives a sermon to the faithful at the Cathedral of St. Paul May 6, 2012.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Piché appears to be well-liked in the Catholic community and he seems at ease connecting with parishioners. He once started a sermon to young Catholics with a series of knock-knock jokes to introduce Jesus Christ into their lives. He used that transition to weave in the idea that prayer should be a critical part of their faith.

"When I come to Mass, if I don't experience the Lord knocking on my heart," Piché said, "...then I've missed perhaps the most important part of the whole thing...It's kind of reversing the knock-knock joke. It's God who is knocking."

Piché's 2009 appointment to auxiliary bishop put him on the fast track to becoming a bishop. The auxiliary bishops who served in the role immediately before him have been appointed bishops in other dioceses.

But the task of being the public face of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis — even for a short period of time —could be monumental.

• MPR News investigation: Archdiocese under scrutiny

Piché is stepping in for an archbishop who was criticized for his handling of clergy misconduct and for his financial and public support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Piché was at the table when Nienstedt made some of his controversial decisions. He wrote letters urging Catholics to back the marriage amendment. He appeared at Good Friday prayer vigils protesting abortion at the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Paul.

Piché was also involved in two recent scandals facing the archdiocese.

He took part in internal discussions as to whether the Rev. Jonathan Shelley had possessed pornography that might have been considered "borderline illegal." St. Paul police have reopened their investigation into whether Shelley's computer contained child pornography.

Jennifer Haselberger, a former canon lawyer at the archdiocese, says Piché continued to pressure her to return one of Shelley's work computers while it was being screened for porn by an outside auditor.

"I was under a lot of pressure from Bishop Piché in particular, who's very frustrated that the computer hadn't been returned in the timeline that he had informed Father Shelley that it would," Haselberger said. "So at the same time that I'm asking them to be more thorough in their investigation, I'm also having to tell them hurry up and get that back to us, because they really want to give the computer back to him."

The internal audit found no pornographic images on that computer. An outside examination into another one of Shelley's computers found 2,300 pornographic images — some that appeared to depict youthful-looking males.

An MPR News investigation found that Nienstedt and other top church leaders debated whether to report their findings to police. They never took that step. Haselberger contacted police earlier this year before resigning her position in the archdiocese.

Piché also worked closely with a parish priest who is now serving a five-year prison sentence. The Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer served as an associate pastor to Piché at The Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, in Wehmeyer's first job as a parish priest after his 2001 ordination.

How Piché handles the clergy sexual abuse scandal facing the Twin Cities archdiocese could play a role in his future, and in the future of the archdiocese for which he has now become the public face.