Nienstedt's resignation could boost church donations

The Cathedral of St. Paul
Visitors ascended the stairway at the Cathedral of St. Paul Monday, June 15, 2015. Nearly two years into a clergy sex abuse scandal, Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned Monday.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

The resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt could boost donations to the Catholic Church in the Twin Cities, where many parishioners have grown frustrated by his handling of allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Nienstedt resigned Monday following two years of damaging revelations about the failure of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to protect children from sexual abuse by priests.

The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January, contending that it likely would be unable to afford potentially huge financial judgments that could be awarded to victims of clergy sex abuse. The judge overseeing the church's reorganization quickly ordered all parties into mediation, hoping to achieve a faster fix for the archdiocese's finances and compensation for abuse victims.

Nienstedt's resignation likely won't matter much in the bankruptcy. But it could make a big difference in eventually encouraging Catholics to increase their donations to the archdiocese and its 187 parishes.

Archbishop John Nienstedt
Archbishop John Nienstedt talked with a reporter at his office in St. Paul, Wednesday, July 30, 2014.
Craig Lassig | AP 2014

Twin Cities Catholics have expressed frustration with Nienstedt's handling of sex-abuse allegations, and his decision to use archdiocese resources to campaign against same-sex marriage.

"People are just reluctant even to support the parishes they love, knowing that some of the money was going to go to the diocese," said the Rev. Tim Power, a retired priest. "Even in very vibrant parishes, there's been a huge financial hit, as people hold back."

Many parishes are struggling financially because parishioners are giving less out of anger with church leaders, Power said.

The archdiocese doesn't disclose how much money parishes receive in donations. But the archdiocese's revenue has been pretty level for the past few years, which is not a good sign, said Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas.

"Contributions usually go up in a time of economic prosperity," he said.

Reid notes that the archdiocese laid off employees last November and was in the red in its 2014 fiscal year. In March of last year, the archdiocese suspended a $160 million capital campaign.

Meanwhile, Catholic Charities has seen its revenue and donations hold steady or rise in recent years. President Tim Marx said the organization has stressed that it is independent of the archdiocese.

But Marx thinks donors would have been more generous if not for the controversy surrounding the archdiocese.

"It could have been better because we know some people have turned away from anything with 'Catholic' in its name," he said.

Bishop Bernard Hebda
Archbishop Bernard Hebda, in Newark, N.J., Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.
Associated Press | File 2013

The Vatican named Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who is set to lead the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., in 2016, to fill in temporarily as apostolic administrator in the Twin Cities.

Marx hopes a new leader will focus on the needy, but also on healing the church and making people more inclined to open their wallets.

"We would hope that any reluctance that people may have felt because of the challenges of the local church ... would be taken care of and they will invest in the needs of the poor and vulnerable," Marx said.

Sunday offering
Offerings are collected at St. Frances Cabrini parish congregation on Oct. 20, 2013, in Minneapolis.
Amanda Snyder | MPR News 2013

Some major donors have cut back on their giving in recent years.

Among them is Tom Horner, a former Independence Party candidate for governor and founder of the public relations firm Horner Strategies. Horner said he has supported his parish and other Catholic organizations but has not given the archdiocese money for several years. That's not going to change soon.

"Frankly, we're going to take a wait-and-see approach to see if the resignation is a catalyst for other changes at the archdiocese," Horner said.

The right leader would make a big difference in increasing donations, said Jim Frey, another significant donor and director of the Frey Foundation.

"I think this augurs well for future donations to the archdiocese and individual churches, supposing that the right person is brought in," Frey said of the change in archdiocese leadership. "A genuine pastor. A real leader."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.