Clergy scandal needs more healing, less legalese, St. Thomas theologians tell Nienstedt

Archbishop John Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt blesses a crowd gathered to discuss immigration reform in September 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

A group of tenured theology professors at the University of St. Thomas sent a letter to embattled Archbishop John Nienstedt on Saturday urging him to "leave the legal talk to the lawyers" and reach out to lay people to repair the spiritual harm caused by the year-long clergy sex-abuse scandal.

"We believe that without such public steps the pastoral state of the archdiocese is not sustainable," they wrote. "The Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has had a distinguished place in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. The current crisis is a grave blot on that history. Legal action alone will not remove it."

The letter, signed by 12 of the private Catholic university's 21 tenured theology professors, does not call for Nienstedt's resignation. Instead, it asks him to change his approach to the crisis. The archbishop should turn his focus to reconciliation, outreach to the faithful and greater involvement of lay people, it said.

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

"The Archdiocese is in a spiritual crisis as well as a legal crisis," the professors wrote. "The resolution of the legal actions now underway will not undo the spiritual damage."

Massimo Faggioli, an assistant theology professor who signed the letter, told MPR News that in the last several months he has watched Nienstedt increasingly focus on legal battles while the faithful have grown disenchanted with their spiritual leader.

"It's not a step that we took lightly, but we believe that it was something that ... as Catholic theologians we were called to say," he said.

Faggioli called Nienstedt's approach "not sustainable." He emphasized that he was sharing his personal view and not speaking on behalf of the group.

"I noticed in the last few months especially the conversation in the diocese has been dominated by legal talk or by the understandable anxiety of having a better image," Faggioli said.

"My worry is that we will become delusional in the sense that we think that a legal solution to the crisis...will solve the big problem."

Read the letter:

In a response to the professors on Monday, Nienstedt wrote that many Catholics had shared similar sentiments. The archbishop said he has taken steps to reach out to lay Catholics and that in last week's issue of The Catholic Spirt and he described a series of "healing Masses designed for all those who feel they have been hurt by the Church."

Niensted also wrote that he has met with victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse, their family and friends, and will continue to do so.

"I am also reaching out to community leaders, ecumenical leaders and parish leaders to talk and learn about how we can be a part of the healing process," the archbishop said in the letter. "I often spend my weekends celebrating Mass at local parishes or going to community events."

But Nienstedt has said little publicly about the scandal since MPR News broke the story of a decades-long clergy sex abuse cover-up last fall. According to documents and former church officials, Nienstedt approved secret payments to priests who had admitted to sexually assaulting children and allowed at least one accused priest to continue to say Mass at Twin Cities parishes.

In December, Ramsey County Judge John Van de North ordered the archdiocese to release the names of priests "credibly accused" of child sex abuse as part of a lawsuit brought by a man who claims Thomas Adamson, a priest in the 1970s, sexually abused him. In an order released Monday, Van de North divided the case into two trials.

The judge said he would decide the first case, which centers on allegations that the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona each created a public nuisance by keeping secret information on priests who committed abuse. That trial is set to begin Nov. 3.

Van de North ruled that a jury would then decide the second case, which alleges that both institutions were negligent in their handling of Adamson.

Church lawyers had argued that the cases should be tried separately, and that the negligence case should go first. Attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents the plaintiff had urged the judge to try the cases together, but if not, that the nuisance case should be tried first to protect children.

While the lawsuits against the church have made their way through the courts, priests have urged Nienstedt to focus on the spiritual needs of Catholics. Some priests have said that the faith of parishioners has been damaged by revelations that Nienstedt and other church leaders protected priests who sexually assaulted children.

Several hundred people have signed online petitions calling for the archbishop to resign. Nienstedt has denied breaking any laws in his handling of abuse cases and has defended his 2009 decision to assign the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer as pastor despite Wehmeyer's sexual interest in younger men. Wehmeyer is now in prison for sexually abusing two boys.

Doug Hennes, a spokesman for the University of St. Thomas, declined to say whether University president Julie Sullivan agreed with the letter. "Faculty are free to say what they want" as long as they do not claim to speak for the university, he said.

The professors who signed the letter are: Cara Anthony, Bernard Brady, Massimo Faggioli, Paul Gavrilyuk, Michael Hollerich, John Martens, Stephen McMichael, Paul Niskanen, David Penchansky, Gerald Schlabach, Ted Ulrich and Paul Wojda.

They called for Nienstedt to give lay people "positions of responsibility in priestly formation, in the governance of the Archdiocese, and especially in the management of the scandal.

"The harsh light now being shone on the inner governance of the Archdiocese makes clear that the problems are not merely personal. They are systemic, the product of a long-standing and deeply entrenched clericalism that does not have to be the corollary of the ordained priestly ministry," they wrote.

In a separate letter in July, five female theology professors at the University of St. Thomas called for new leadership in the archdiocese, though they did not specifically call for Nienstedt to step down.

"For genuine healing to occur, we believe it is necessary to have new leadership at the archdiocesan level, leadership that includes individuals who are neither perpetrators nor enablers of abuse," Cara Anthony, Corrine Carvalho, Sherry Jordon, Sue Myers and Kimberly Vrudny wrote in that letter.

Scandal spreads to University of St. Thomas

Although the University of St. Thomas is not run by the Twin Cities archdiocese, the two organizations are closely connected.

Last fall, former archbishop Harry Flynn and former vicar general Kevin McDonough resigned from the university's board of trustees amid reports about their roles in the cover-up.

University administrators also commissioned an investigation last year into the handling of an abuse allegation against the Rev. Michael Keating, an associate professor of Catholic Studies who was sued in October 2013 by a woman who alleges he sexually abused her as a teenager. Keating, who remains on leave, has denied the allegations.

The investigation followed an MPR News report that showed internal archdiocesan documents raised questions about what University of St. Thomas administrators knew about the allegations years earlier.

Documents showed the woman's family first reported the allegations to the archdiocese in 2006. The archdiocese's clergy review board investigated and concluded in November 2007 that there was insufficient evidence of child sexual abuse. Nonetheless, it recommended to Flynn that Keating not be allowed to mentor teenagers and young adults.

McDonough had planned to inform Don Briel, the university's director of the Center for Catholic Studies, of the conclusion of the investigation. "To the extent that others in the University have to be notified, we should see to that as well," McDonough wrote in a March 13, 2008 memo to Flynn. Briel retired in August.

The investigation into the matter has not been completed, a university spokesman said Monday.