Faced with growing calls for his resignation for his handling of a clergy sex abuse scandal, Archbishop John Nienstedt said Wednesday that he has no plans to leave his position as head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
In his first interview with MPR News since the scandal broke last September, Nienstedt defended his decisions and said some have tried to discredit him with rumors of sexual misconduct.
For months, Nienstedt has told his colleagues at the chancery in St. Paul that he is "not a quitter." On Wednesday, he insisted that he has no plans to resign, but conceded that his image has suffered in the past year as Catholics reacted to MPR News reports that Nienstedt and other bishops had protected priests accused of sexually abusing children.
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"I think the role of the bishop is that of more of a father figure to a spiritual community of faith as opposed to a CEO," Nienstedt said. "I think there's a momentum here, that we're really, we're much better off today than we were, and I want to be a part of that and I want to continue to lend my support to that. We've learned an awful lot of stuff over the last 10 months and I think that we're ready to move on to a better place."
The archbishop said he has worked hard to follow the recommendations of a task force he created last year to address the church's procedures for handling abuse allegations. He said an outside firm has reviewed 3,000 clergy files — and that the archdiocese has changed its clergy sexual abuse policy.
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"We've learned an awful lot of stuff over the last 10 months and I think that we're ready to move on to a better place."
Nienstedt also said he hasn't been interviewed by police who have been investigating the archdiocese's handling of abuse complaints. He said the archdiocese hasn't decided whether to file for bankruptcy in response to dozens of lawsuits filed by alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse — and that he is taking a "wait and see" approach to that issue.
When asked if he thinks people will be able to trust him and continue following him in the wake of the scandal, Nienstedt said is confident that many will.
"Well, I read all my mail and all my emails that I get, and there is decidedly a group of people who have lost trust," he said. "But I think there's more than that number of people who have told me, 'Hang in there, you're doing a good job, we're going to get through this and be in a better place.' So I think you're getting one side of the story, but I see both sides of the story. And I believe that what we're going to do in the next few months is going to convince people that we're on the right track."
Nienstedt defended his decisions on several abuse cases, saying that he did listen to the advice of his former chancellor, Jennifer Haselberger, in some cases, and cut off some payments to abusive priests. Haselberger resigned in April 2013 in protest of the archdiocese's handling of abuse cases. She contacted MPR News in July 2013 to reveal the church's secrets.
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"You have to understand how the office works here," Nienstedt said. "You've got several things coming at you every day. And so I had to deal with them as they came up, one by one by one, you know?"
Documents obtained by MPR News and published over the past year show that Nienstedt knew of problems with the archdiocese's handling of clergy sex abuse shortly after he became archbishop in 2008, and that Haselberger repeatedly warned him that the archdiocese wasn't following Vatican rules. Still, Nienstedt said he was caught off guard by the immensity of the news reports.
"I, in a sense, didn't see the forest for the trees," Nienstedt said. "I was aware of certain problems with misconduct on the part of different priests on a day to day basis, but I didn't get the overall picture of where we stood, that someone like Jennifer who dealt with the files every day would have had.
"We were dealing with these individual situations," he said. "So the whole scope of the thing was not made known to me."
"I was aware of certain problems with misconduct on the part of different priests on a day to day basis, but I didn't get the overall picture of where we stood."
Nienstedt defended his decision in 2009 to appoint the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer as pastor of Blessed Sacrament and St. Thomas the Apostle, two parishes in St. Paul that later merged. Haselberger had warned Nienstedt to look at the priest's file because she was alarmed by his sexual interest in younger men.
Two men had reported that Wehmeyer had approached them for sex at a bookstore in Roseville, and a sheriff's deputy had spotted the priest in a St. Paul park known as a popular spot for cruising. Wehmeyer received a psychological evaluation at St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., and agreed to attend meetings of Sexaholics Anonymous, according to documents obtained by MPR News. Wehmeyer went on to sexually abuse two boys at his parish and is now in prison.
The archbishop said he didn't think appointing Wehmeyer posed a risk.
"When Jennifer brought up her objections to him being made pastor, I reviewed the file that she prepared for me, I saw that he had same-sex attractions, which doesn't preclude one from becoming a pastor," Nienstedt said of Wehmeyer. "He had been, gone to St. Luke's, and this was five years later. He had done everything they had asked him to do. He was doing spiritual direction every month. He was doing, seeing a therapist ... But there was nothing at the time that I made him pastor that I felt was serious enough to not make him a pastor. Jennifer didn't agree, but Jennifer had had a couple of run-ins with him."
Nienstedt said he didn't err in appointing Wehmeyer pastor, based on what he knew at the time. "I believe that people can reform and be reformed and learn from their mistakes," he said
Nienstedt added, "I consulted the comprehensive assignment board, as I do in every instance of making a priest a pastor, and there were no objections from that group. ... I consulted my auxiliary bishop, and except for Jennifer, there were really no objections, so I felt he was ready and able and certainly willing to take on that position."
Nienstedt also faces scrutiny from an investigation he commissioned into his own private life. MPR News has previously reported that the investigation involves at least one allegation that Nienstedt engaged in sexual misconduct with an adult.
The archbishop denied allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior, but said he believes there is more than one allegation.
"I have nothing to hide."
"It is not true," Nienstedt said, of the claims that he engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with other men.
He said the investigation began with a rumor in early December 2013 "around the time that the other false accusation was made against me," a reference to the police investigation into whether Nienstedt touched a boy's backside at a public event. The police investigation ended without charges.
"All of a sudden it seemed like rumors and innuendos were coming out of the woodwork, and I didn't have anything to hide," Nienstedt said. "I know that I've not done anything immoral or criminal or anything of that nature, and so when this came to the attention of my staff, they said, 'Well, we should probably investigate it. We would with any priest.' And I said sure, I have nothing to hide."
He said he could not say much about what the investigators are looking into because he handed authority over the investigation to Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche.
"I told him that I would not interfere, so it really would be inappropriate for me to comment on that at this time," Nienstedt said. "I'm very hopeful that they're near the end of this thing and that we can get some resolution of it as soon as possible."
Nienstedt said the archdiocese is paying for the investigation, but he doesn't know how much it costs.
When asked if investigators are looking into allegations of improper behavior in Detroit and elsewhere, Nienstedt said the interviewers "came up with different situations, so yes. But again, I really shouldn't be commenting on the investigation itself."
Haselberger has said that lawyers in charge of the investigation told her that they were looking into whether Nienstedt had an inappropriate relationship with Wehmeyer.
"I also want to say that I'm not anti-gay. ... I respect every person, man, woman, and child, for their dignity and a son and daughter of God."
"That's absolutely false," Nienstedt said. "Father Wehmeyer had me over for dinner the first night that I went to bless his altar. I had made him pastor and then he had a DWI, I think [it was] in the fall of 2009. I called him to find out how he was doing, as I call every other priest. He said he was going stir crazy. I said, 'Well how about I take you out for dinner?' So I did, and then he reciprocated some months later when he was back driving, at a restaurant owned by a friend of his. So that would have been three meals in three years. I don't know that that's an inappropriate relationship."
Nienstedt said he's not sexually attracted to men.
"And I also want to say that I'm not anti-gay. A lot of the feedback I got during the marriage amendment was the fact that I was a bigot and I was a homophobe, and all this kind of stuff," he said. "I respect every person, man, woman, and child, for their dignity and a son and daughter of God, but no, I'm not struggling with those attractions."
Nienstedt said he thinks the allegations against him are part of an attempt to discredit him for preaching the Catholic faith.
"They think if you can shoot the messenger ... the message goes away," he said.