Investigation of Archbishop John Nienstedt surprises priests, parishioners

Archbishop John Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt in September 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson/File

Archbishop John Nienstedt, who has led his archdiocese's response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal for nearly a year, confirmed in a statement Tuesday that he ordered a private investigation into unspecified allegations against himself.

Nienstedt said the allegations "do not involve minors or lay members of the faithful, and they do not implicate any kind of illegal or criminal behavior" and "involve events alleged to have occurred at least a decade ago, before I began serving in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis."

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

He called the claims "absolutely and entirely false." He didn't say how much the months-long investigation cost or who paid for it.

An archdiocese lawyer told Ramsey County Attorney John Choi in March that the private investigation involved claims of "sexual conduct with an adult," according to a spokesperson for the Ramsey County Attorney's Office. The spokesman said the archdiocese did not provide the name of the adult.

One person interviewed in the investigation -- former archdiocese chancellor and whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger -- said she was asked about Nienstedt's interactions with the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest who is now in prison for child sexual abuse and possession of child pornography.

MPR News reported in September that Nienstedt knew of Wehmeyer's sexual interest in younger men but kept him in ministry and did not disclose the information to parish employees. Wehmeyer later admitted to sexually abusing two sons of a parish employee.

Haselberger told the lawyers that Nienstedt had wanted to visit Wehmeyer after his arrest but an attorney for the archdiocese advised against it.

The revelations of a secret investigation took parishioners and priests by surprise. For months, the archdiocese has pledged transparency and accountability as it struggles to respond to an MPR News investigation that found church leaders failed to report alleged sex crimes to police, gave secret payments to abusive clergy and did not warn parishioners of a priest's sexual misconduct.

One of Nienstedt's longtime critics, the Rev. Mike Tegeder, of Minneapolis, said he was saddened to learn of the investigation.

Tegeder said he doesn't understand why Nienstedt decided to remain in ministry during the private investigation. He noted that the archbishop has required other priests to take leaves of absence during investigations of alleged misconduct.

He said that he doesn't think the investigation will lead to Nienstedt's resignation. "It might pressure him to dig more deeply in resisting that," Tegeder said. "It could make him more adamant that he's not going to step down."

Nienstedt has told several people that he's "not a quitter," he added.

Tegeder said that when he confronted Nienstedt at a meeting of priests last fall and asked him to resign, the archbishop barely reacted.

Nienstedt's former top deputy, the Rev. Peter Laird, also has said that he advised Nienstedt to resign because of the clergy abuse scandal - and that Nienstedt said nothing in reply.

Some church experts are puzzled by Nienstedt's decision to involve a private law firm in such a sensitive matter. "There are a couple pieces of the puzzle that aren't there," said former Vatican embassy official Thomas Doyle, who led the effort to warn the Catholic Church about clergy sexual abuse in the 1980s.

Doyle said he's never heard of a bishop authorizing an outside investigation into his own alleged misconduct. "It's very unusual that they'd ever allow outsiders to get into their personal lives," Doyle said.

The Catholic Church requires most priests to remain celibate. In recent decades, several bishops have resigned following public revelations of alleged sexual contact with adults. For example, in 1990, Archbishop Eugene Marino, of Atlanta, resigned amid claims that he had a two-year sexual relationship with a woman. And in 2002, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, of Milwaukee, retired after a man revealed that the archdiocese had given him $450,000 to keep quiet about alleged sexual contact with the archbishop.

Whistleblower learns of investigation

Haselberger said she learned of the private inquiry into Nienstedt from investigating attorneys Matthew Forsgren and David Wallace-Jackson, of the Greene Espel law firm in Minneapolis. The lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

Haselberger said the lawyers interviewed her about a wide range of topics, but appeared to be most interested in whether the archbishop had any sexual contact with priests or other adults. She said the lawyers told her at the time that they had interviewed more than a dozen people from several states and that 11 people provided sworn statements.

They also showed her a document that appeared to be written by Nienstedt in late January authorizing Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche to investigate claims against him, she said.

A separate document showed that the Rev. Dan Griffith coordinated the communications between the chancery and the firm, she said. Griffith, who oversees the archdiocese's child safety programs, did not respond to an interview request.

Law enforcement knew of investigation

In December 2013, St. Paul police investigated an allegation from a priest that Nienstedt grabbed the buttocks of a boy at a group event in 2009. Nienstedt stepped aside from public ministry during that investigation but returned in March when police closed the case without charges. The Ramsey County Attorney's Office later asked police to reopen the case.

St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla confirmed Tuesday that the police department also knew of the private investigation."During the course of us investigating other allegations, we became aware of it," he said.

Padilla 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 County Attorney John Choi knew of the private inquiry. Spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein said that Tom Johnson, a lawyer for the archdiocese, contacted Choi on March 28. Johnson is the former Hennepin County Attorney.

Choi "asked a number of specific questions about the investigation and requested that the attorney immediately contact Commander Mary Nash at the Saint Paul Police Department with the same information," the spokesman said in a statement.

Choi confirmed that police received the information, and his staff discussed the information with St. Paul police investigators the following week.

"No further information can be provided at this time because of the ongoing nature of the overall investigation of the Arch Diocese," the statement said.

Gerhardstein said Ramsey County prosecutors have not received any police cases that allege criminal sexual conduct by Nienstedt involving adults. He said the case involving a claim that Nienstedt touched a child has been kept open "to address other elements of this alleged incident. None of those elements pertain to Archbishop Nienstedt."

Archdiocese response

Nienstedt confirmed in his statement Tuesday that he ordered Piche, the auxiliary bishop, to oversee the investigation into allegations against him.

In a separate statement posted on the archdiocese's website, Piche said, "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."

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 and "will be informed of the results of the investigation when it is completed."