Calls for Archbishop Nienstedt's resignation over handling of abuse get louder

Archbishop Nienstedt
Nienstedt at an anti-abortion protest in St. Paul in April.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Some prominent Catholics are demanding the resignation of Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt, saying the credibility of the entire archdiocese is at stake. The call for change among lay Catholics is rising after an MPR News documentary showed how three Twin Cities archbishops kept quiet about priests who sexually abused children.

After details of abuse and cover-ups began emerging last fall, Nienstedt publicly admitted mistakes had been made. One of his top deputies resigned and the archbishop named a task force that this spring cited poor oversight and flawed policies in the handling of abuse allegations. But it hasn't been enough to restore the confidence of Catholics like Jim Frey, who says the only way the archdiocese can begin to heal is if Nienstedt steps down.

"I would say if there's anything the laity can do, it's to speak with one voice to say as loudly as we can, 'The time has come to resign,'" he says.

Frey is a major donor to Catholic organizations. He says lay Catholics felt a bit of hope last week when Pope Francis promised to hold bishops accountable for failing to protect kids from sexual abuse. But here in the Twin Cities, Frey says the church scandal has dragged out for nearly a year with few consequences for top church officials.

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

MPR News reported Monday that the archdiocese has repeated a pattern of deception when it dealt with claims of sexual abuse against children. When a new allegation emerged, church leaders promised to change and be transparent. But in reality, the archdiocese would work even harder to cover up the abuse.

Former Twin Cities Archbishop Harry Flynn developed the system for handling each crisis, and Nienstedt chose to continue the coverup.

"The story comes up, we talk about it for a while, and then it gets quiet again," said Sara Fleetham, a parish employee at Guardian Angels in Oakdale. "And that's exactly what happened. And it just is maddening."

Tom Horner, a public-affairs executive and former gubernatorial candidate, says it's clear that the problems within the church go beyond a single person. He says someone other than Nienstedt needs to change the culture of the church, and he hopes the archbishop resigns on his own accord. He says Nienstedt has lost the ability to lead on not only issues of abuse, but on social-justice causes that are important to many Catholics, like himself.

"Leadership does demand that sometimes people step up and recognize that there comes a point where they can no longer lead," Horner said.

Nienstedt has told people that he's not a quitter. He has declined repeated requests for an interview.

Some Catholics aren't convinced that simply changing the man at the top will prevent more children from getting hurt. State Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul, who as a teenager studied to be a priest, says he's become jaded after hearing so many broken promises from top church officials.

"We're at the point, where, fool me twice, shame on me," Lesch said. "I'm not sure there's the credibility there where I could trust that an internal change will yield any progress."

Lesch is a prosecutor for the city of St. Paul. While he's not privvy to the details of the active cases St. Paul police has investigated, Lesch says a call from survivors for a grand-jury investigation has some merit. "Of course it's rare, but if there is a situation that is tailor-made for a grand jury, I think this is it," he said.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has not called a grand-jury investigation, which would allow his office to subpoena church memos that spell out the extent of which church officials knew about the abuse.

Usually, grand juries in Minnesota are used to help prosecutors determine whether to charge someone with first-degree murder, or to help them get a pulse on how the public might react to tricky cases. Grand juries are not typically used to substitute for an investigation already under way by law enforcment. Choi's office is currently reviewing the cases from St. Paul police.

But the review of facts is not happening fast enough for David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"There still has not been full disclosure from the archdiocese, and there seems to be nobody in the law enforcement community in the Twin Cities that's really making church officials change the way they mishandle these cases," Clohessy said.

A spokesman for Choi says the reviews of clergy sex abuse cases already underway are complex and can take considerable time to complete.