Archbishop authorized secret investigation of himself

Archbishop Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Updated: 6:13 p.m. | Posted: 2:05 p.m.

A Minneapolis law firm has been secretly investigating the private life of Archbishop John Nienstedt for the past six months. Nienstedt acknowledged Tuesday that he had authorized an investigation into allegations made against him.

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

In a statement posted to the archdiocese's website, Nienstedt said the allegations involve events "alleged to have occurred at least a decade ago," before his arrival in the Twin Cities. They do not involve minors, he said, nor lay members of the church, and "they do not implicate any kind of illegal or criminal behavior."

"These allegations," he said, "are absolutely and entirely false."

Jennifer Haselberger, a former chancery official, said she met with attorneys from the Greene Espel law firm several times at their Minneapolis office. Some of the meetings lasted hours. The lawyers — Matthew Forsgren and David Wallace-Jackson — told her at the time that they had interviewed more than a dozen priests and laypeople in several states and that 11 people provided sworn statements. The attorneys told her that Nienstedt had authorized the broad investigation into his own life in late January.

Haselberger said Forsgren and Wallace-Jackson asked her about a wide range of topics. They appeared to be most interested in whether the archbishop had had any sexual contact with priests or other adults, she said.

The lawyers also asked Haselberger specifically about Nienstedt's interactions with the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest who is now in prison for sexually abusing two children and possessing child pornography. Haselberger said she told them about a time when the archbishop had wanted to visit Wehmeyer after his arrest, but was advised against doing so by an archdiocesan lawyer.

Nienstedt's tenure in the Twin Cities

Forsgren and Wallace-Jackson specialize in internal investigations, white-collar criminal defense and business litigation, according to the firm's website.

In his statement Tuesday, Nienstedt said he ordered Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche to oversee an independent investigation. "It would be unfair to ignore these allegations simply because I know them to be false," Nientsedt said. "Since I would instruct the Archdiocese to investigate similar allegations made against any priest, I have ordered the Archdiocese to independently investigate the allegations made against me."

Piche released his own statement on the archdiocese's website Tuesday, confirming the charge Nienstedt put before him.

"Several months ago, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis received claims regarding alleged misbehavior involving Archbishop John Nienstedt," he said. "The claims did not involve anything criminal or with minors. The Archbishop asked me to investigate these claims, so I hired an independent firm to conduct a thorough investigation. The investigation is ongoing and I will respond appropriately as the process continues."

Last year, police investigated an allegation from a priest that Nienstedt grabbed the buttocks of a boy at a group event in 2009. Police closed the case without charges in March and reopened it two weeks later at the request of the Ramsey County Attorney's Office.

Nienstedt, facing claim he touched boy, steps aside during investigation, denies allegation (Dec. 17, 2013)
Ramsey County will not file charges against Archbishop Nienstedt (March 11, 2013)
St. Paul police to reopen two cases related to Archdiocese investigation (March 26, 2014)

St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla confirmed that the police department knew of the private investigation.

"During the course of us investigating other allegations, we became aware of it," Padilla said.

He declined to elaborate and referred all questions to the Ramsey County Attorney's Office.

A spokesman for the Ramsey County Attorney's Office confirmed that a lawyer for the archdiocese contacted Ramsey County Attorney John Choi on March 28 about an archdiocesan "investigation of Archbishop Nienstedt involving allegations of sexual conduct with an adult."

MPR News contacted the seven members of the Twin Cities archdiocese's Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force to see if they were aware of the investigation. The task force was appointed last fall to evaluate the archdiocese's policies and procedures for child safety. It released its report in April. Two members reached by phone, Kathleen Erickson DiGiorno and Brook Schaub, said they had no comment on the Nienstedt investigation. DiGiorno, who chaired the task force, said she knew nothing of the investigation.

In September of last year MPR News launched a series of investigative stories showing a cover-up of sexual abuse by priests that spanned three archbishops over decades. Since then, top church officials have resigned various positions, priests have been put on leave, the archdiocese suspended its $160 million capital campaign, police began investigations and several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of alleged victims.

The news of the private investigation raises more questions about the scandal and the future leadership of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Nienstedt said in his statement that the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who acts as a liaison to the Vatican and oversees all bishops in the United States, is aware of the allegations. "He will be informed of the results of the investigation when it is completed," Nienstedt said.

Still, questions loom. The archdiocese has not said how much the investigation has cost or how the archdiocese is paying for it.