Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, was rewarded for his cover-up of sexually abusive priests by being appointed to a prestigious Vatican post in Rome. Bernard Law should have been sentenced to a few years in an American jail.
Under a new pope, the clock is ticking for wayward covert-up bishops, however. And there is quite a list to choose from. Perhaps we should hang their photos in our church vestibules, if not the local post office.
Since I am partial to my native state of Michigan, I would begin with John Clayton Nienstedt, the eighth and current Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A Motown boy, he attended and was later rector of my first alma mater: Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
John Clayton has a thing about gays. Shortly after becoming Twin Cities Archbishop, he discontinued the gay pride prayer service that was held at St. Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis. John had earlier described homosexuality as a “result of psychological trauma” that “must be understood in the context of other human disorders: envy, malice, greed, etc.” In December 2013, Archbishop Nienstedt voluntarily stepped aside from all public ministry while police investigated an allegation that he touched a boy on his buttocks. In March 2014, he returned to public ministry after an extensive investigation found no buttocks-touching evidence against him. So much for a bit of general background……
The archbishop is on my list, however, not because of his gay paranoia but his history of sexual abuse cover-ups.
Archbishop John Nienstedt maintained a relatively low profile on clergy sexual abuse until early October 2013, when he began re-arranging archdiocesan deck-chairs, reacting to charges of covering-up evidence of child pornography on a priest’s computer inside his own chancery. The accusation came from attorney Jennifer Haselberger, former chancellor for canonical affairs for the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese. She had earlier stated that the archdiocese had overlooked for nearly a decade the sexual compulsions of another priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, and did not warn parishioners. Wehmeyer is now in prison, convicted of sexually abusing two boys and possession of child pornography.
Nienstedt, who came to St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2008, said he had no knowledge of any cover-ups during his administration. Jennifer Haselberger, had warned him in 2009, however, not to promote a priest with a known history of sexual misconduct. Nienstedt reacted by making him pastor of the parish, where had had already been parish administrator. The priest then continued to abuse children in that parish.
Haselberger resigned because of the archdiocesan leader’s refusal to act on her allegations of cover-ups which she said had made it impossible for her to continue in her position with any sense of personal integrity.
Having lost confidence in him, lay people and priests in the archdiocese began to call for Nienstedt’s resignation. St. Paul Attorney Jeff Anderson, well-known for representing victims of sexual abuse, accused the archdiocese of a longstanding and ongoing cover-up of child sex abuse, going back to when Harry Flynn was the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop.
Nienstedt’s top deputy, Father Peter Laird, stepped down as vicar general of the archdiocese in October 2013; and a couple weeks after that former Archbishop Harry Flynn resigned as chair of the board of trustees at the University of St. Thomas. Peter Laird had also told Archbishop Nienstedt that he too should resign.
More serious accusations emerged in November 2014, concerning Clarence Vavra, a priest and an admitted serial pedophile. For almost 19 years top ranking archdiocesan officials knew that Vavra admitted sexually assaulting kids. For at least a year and a half (possibly longer), Archbishop John Nienstedt knew about Vavra’s admitted sexual abuse of children. For years, due to the callousness of Nienstedt and others, this admitted predator priest continued to live and work with little or no supervision. He was sent from parish to parish, and therefore given, at each new location, a fresh group of children to potentially molest.
On Wednesday April 2, 2014, Archbishop John Nienstedt testified about his knowledge of clergy sexual abuse. Nienstedt testified that his former vicar general, Kevin McDonough, was aware of the details of wayward clergy while he was not. Nienstedt’s four-hour deposition came to an abrupt end, surprisingly however, with the archbishop walking out when asked to turn over the archdiocese’s files of credibly accused priests.
In his own deposition, two weeks after Nienstedt’s, Kevin McDonough denied having a conversation with Archbishop Nienstedt in which he instructed the archbishop not to write down sensitive information – a conversation Nienstedt, during his deposition, said happened.
“OH WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE,
WHEN FIRST WE PRACTICE TO DECEIVE!”
– Sir Walter Scott