A Twin Cities priest's summer trip with John Nienstedt was about to get excruciatingly uncomfortable.
The priest had joined the then-bishop of New Ulm, Minn., on a visit to Nienstedt's second home, not far from Lake Huron in Michigan. It was July 2004. At the time, the 37-year-old man considered Nienstedt, 20 years his senior, a close platonic friend.
One night, after the two men attended a private event near Detroit, the priest offered to drive the roughly 60 miles home. Nienstedt had drunk too much, he figured.
In the car, the priest would later recount to investigators, Nienstedt spoke affectionately and placed his hand on the priest's neck. The bishop then began to massage it, according to the priest.
"I felt extremely awkward and did not know what to do," he said, according to a document released by Ramsey County last week. The priest considered the gesture an unwelcome sexual advance.
The man, who is no longer a priest, detailed the incident in a sworn statement he provided to the archdiocese's private investigation into claims of inappropriate conduct by Nienstedt, the former leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
A trove of documents released last week by Ramsey County prosecutors as part of a legal settlement with the Twin Cities archdiocese shows a pattern of alleged sexual harassment and retribution by Nienstedt. The documents include a Ramsey County investigator's files, which draw heavily from sworn statements, as well as internal church memos that summarize complaints by people both sworn and not.
Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church
In an internal memo in 2014, a church official described the claims against Nienstedt as alleging unwelcome sexual advances toward other men, improper interactions with seminarians and young priests, and career reprisals for those who didn't reciprocate the advances.
Nienstedt has steadfastly denied the accusations, calling them "absolutely and entirely false." He maintains he is a heterosexual man who's been celibate his entire life.
"I have never solicited sex," he said in a statement to MPR News last week.
In the affidavit, the ex-priest described the anguish he felt after his friendship with Nienstedt took a turn. He said that the morning after the attempted neck massage, he made a confession with Nienstedt in which he revealed his attraction to women. He said it was intended to send a gentle yet clear message that he was not sexually interested in the bishop.
And then the priest pondered the consequences for his job.
"I began to think about my career and wondered what I was going to do, given that I was relatively recently ordained," the man said, according to the Ramsey County document. "I worried about future opportunities given what had just happened."
If the allegations are true, they paint an unsettling picture of what it's like to be sexually harassed by a bishop — someone who has complete control over where a priest works and lives.
"If a priest speaks up, he loses everything," said Richard Sipe, an expert on sex and celibacy within the Catholic Church. "He loses his security, his job, his status, and in the course he becomes a pariah."
Allegation of reprisal
The former priest is identified only by his initials in redacted notes from an investigator with Ramsey County. Reached by MPR News, he said he stands behind the details of his affidavit, but he declined to comment for the story. He said the incident occurred more than a decade ago and he wanted to move on with his life.
He told investigators in 2014 that after the trip to Nienstedt's summer home, he tried to distance himself from the bishop. When the priest learned that Nienstedt was to be appointed archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis — in other words, his top boss — he felt the situation would become untenable.
"I could not imagine continuing as a priest when I had rejected the advances of the soon to be Archbishop," he said, according to an investigator's review of his affidavit. "The boundaries between personal and workplace that exist in private business do not apply in the Church. The Archbishop in my view would have influence in total on my work and too many aspects of my personal life."
In an email circulated to other priests, Nienstedt later reprimanded him about an expense report. It was a signal, at least in the priest's mind, that their friendship had ended. It also portended "what [his] life in ministry would be like" under Nienstedt, an investigator reported.
He began the process of leaving the priesthood in October 2007, about six months after Nienstedt became archbishop.
In 2013, however, the former priest pursued the idea of returning to the ministry, this time in New York. He met with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, his old seminary rector, to discuss re-entering the priesthood there.
Dolan was at first encouraging. But after consulting Nienstedt, Dolan wrote the man that it would be best if he did not become a priest in New York at that time.
"I do not know what Archbishop Nienstedt told Cardinal Dolan," the ex-priest reportedly told investigators, "but know that Archbishop Nienstedt said something very personal against me."
Investigation goes silent
The effort to get to the bottom of the various allegations against Nienstedt began in January 2014.
Nienstedt himself authorized the archdiocese's private investigation into claims that he had sexually harassed men and engaged in other inappropriate behavior. An internal church memo said investigators were also focusing on Nienstedt's close relationship with former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, whose abuse of children became a central facet of the Twin Cities archdiocese's sex scandal.
Investigators with the Minneapolis law firm Greene Espel gathered sworn statements from the ex-priest who claimed harassment and 10 others. The witnesses were under oath, and the lawyers found them to be credible, according to a church memo from April 2014.
The cumulative weight of the allegations worried church officials.
"Presented this level of evidence against a priest, we would certainly take action," wrote the Rev. Dan Griffith, who was in charge of responding to claims of sexual abuse and misconduct throughout the archdiocese.
But the investigation would soon be silenced, according to a memo Griffith wrote just a few months later, in July 2014.
A Vatican representative in Washington told church officials in St. Paul to curtail the investigation of Nienstedt, the memo said, and the former apostolic nuncio, Carlo Maria Vigano, also ordered archdiocese officials to destroy a letter objecting to his order.
Griffith, who wrote the memos, declined to comment for this story. He said he has confidence in the ability of the current Twin Cities archbishop, Bernard Hebda, to protect children and bring healing to victims.
Requests by MPR News to interview the current apostolic nuncio received no reply. The archdiocese, which was provided a copy of Greene Espel's investigative report, has not released it.
A spokesman said Archbishop Hebda was not available for an interview this week because he was heading to Poland for World Youth Day.
'The culture fosters secrecy'
Allegations of sex harassment by a bishop toward a priest are not unique. In fact, that scenario is at the heart of a fictional thriller, "Master of Ceremonies," written by a Catholic priest who is also an expert on church hierarchy and secrecy.
"It is a very sticky situation if a priest does blow the whistle on a bishop who has harassed him," said the author, the Rev. Donald Cozzens, a retired writer-in-residence at John Carroll University.
Cozzens noted that the allegations against Nienstedt haven't been proven, and cautioned that he could only speak generally.
As dreadful as sexual harassment in a secular workplace can be, a victim in the priesthood may have even fewer options for recourse or mobility, Cozzens said. He can't simply find another job in a different diocese because he still needs the approval of his bishop — the very man who harassed him.
"A bishop has more control over a priest than, say, a CEO would have over an employee," he said. "The bishop not only controls the assignment of the priest, he controls where he lives. It can be really dispiriting and discouraging. The priest can feel like, 'Where do I turn?'"
What makes the environment even more stifling for victims is the church hierarchy, which Cozzens likens to a "feudal system" in which priests serve as vassals to a powerful bishop.
"The culture fosters secrecy," said Cozzens. "And in this feudal system, transparency and accountability are unheard of."
Other claims of harassment
The investigative documents released last week by Ramsey County suggest a wealth of evidence against Nienstedt.
Among those who provided affidavits were the rector of the St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul and the archdiocese's former director of the office of priestly life and ministry. Both priests knew about the alleged 2004 incident with the former priest near Nienstedt's Michigan home; they also shared concerns about the archbishop's frequent visits to the seminary and what they described as his "awkward" or unusual interactions with young men.
The final affidavit in the Greene Espel investigation came in April 2014 from James Heathcott, a former seminarian who now lives in Oregon. In his late teens, he attended a Detroit seminary where Nienstedt served as rector.
As MPR News reported last year, Heathcott said Nienstedt invited him on a private ski trip. Heathcott declined because he considered the trip inappropriate.
Nienstedt allegedly retaliated by kicking the young man out of the seminary. In the affidavit, Heathcott said he considered Nienstedt's behavior as a "kind of grooming."
In one of the documents released last week, Eugene Leatherman, an investigator with the Ramsey County attorney's office, described an interview with a young man who reported he had an inappropriate encounter with Nienstedt when he was a teen.
The young man grew up in New Ulm, where Nienstedt was bishop. In 2004, when he was 15, he went to Germany for the World Youth Day, an event for young people organized by the Catholic Church.
He and another teen friend were caught in the rain with Nienstedt, and all three ran to a pub to eat lunch. Then, at the bishop's suggestion, they went to Nienstedt's hotel room, where they allegedly stripped out of their wet clothes in one another's presence. The bishop changed into dry clothes, and the boys put on hotel bathrobes.
The New Ulm boy said he felt uncomfortable questioning or challenging Nienstedt because of the authority the bishop held. He told his mother about the incident once he returned to Minnesota.
Internal church memos documented additional claims against Nienstedt. In one of them, a Detroit priest alleged that while staying overnight at the rectory of the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Mich., Nienstedt sexually solicited him.
Nienstedt resigned as archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis in June 2015 and remains a priest in good standing. He lives in the area of Santa Rosa, Calif., and was recently hired as a consultant to the Napa Institute Foundation, according to the institute's director, John Meyer. Nienstedt helps write and edit religious documents.
Nienstedt said last week he was relieved that the allegations were made public. In a statement, he said he believes his accusers retaliated against him for speaking out against same-sex marriage and for "difficult decisions I have made as their superior."
He added that he was governed by privacy and employment laws that limit what he can say. His lawyer noted that "no one has ever sued him for sexual harassment nor has he ever been accused of any crime by any law enforcement agency."
Nienstedt said he didn't come forward about the allegations because they were untrue — and because he didn't want to speak poorly about the men making the claims.
"It's also difficult to defend myself because the allegations are of the 'he said, he said' nature," Nienstedt said. "It is my word against the accusers."
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