UPDATED — EDINA, Minn. (CNS) — Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, at the invitation of a parish pastor, apologized for the archdiocese’s handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations in a homily delivered at two Dec. 15 Masses at the parish church.

“I am here to apologize for the indignation that you justifiably feel. You deserve better,” Archbishop Nienstedt said at Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina.

“The negative news reports about past incidents of clerical sexual abuse in this local church have rightly been met with shame, embarrassment and outrage that such heinous acts could be perpetrated by men who had taken priestly vows as well as bishops who failed to remove them from ministry,” Archbishop Nienstedt said.

“While only one of the crimes against minors has happened in this archdiocese since 2002, that is still one too many.”

The Catholic Spirit, archdiocesan newspaper, published Dec. 5 the names of 30 priests for whom credible allegations of abuse had been reported after the archdiocese gained court permission to release the names.

“The majority of those allegations go back to the 1970s and 1980s,” Archbishop Nienstedt said in his homily. “Again, that is not to excuse those actions or diminish the harm done to their victims. But it does indicate that progress is being made in reducing the incidence of such terrible misconduct.”

Archbishop Nienstedt has headed the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis since 2008; he had previously been its coadjutor archbishop.

“When I arrived here seven years ago, one of the first things I was told was that this whole issue of clerical sex abuse had been taken care of and I didn’t have to worry about it,” the archbishop told reporters between Masses. “Unfortunately I believed that. … And so my biggest apology today is to say I overlooked this. I should have investigated it a lot more than I did. When the story started to break at the end of September, I was as surprised as anyone else.”

In his homily, Archbishop Nienstedt said he and his staff had four goals: “to ensure safe environments for everyone in our churches, Catholic schools or religious programs, especially minors and vulnerable adults”; “to reach out to victims so as to promote their process of healing”; “to regain the trust of our Catholic faithful”; and “to reassure our clergy of our deep and abiding gratitude for their tireless and self-giving service, and to assure them of our commitment to them and to their legal and canonical rights.”

Father Bob Schwartz, Our Lady of Grace’s pastor, told Catholic News Service Dec. 16 Archbishop Nienstedt had visited “four or five” other parishes before. “The big deal (this time) is he announced this in advance to all his priests,” he said.

Father Schwartz added he had written the archbishop a letter “saying I think he needs to get back with the people. He needs to listen to us and be a part of us. I got a form letter back. I didn’t get much of a response, I wasn’t sure he had read it.”

But then he got a personal response from Archbishop Nienstedt, who told Father Schwartz, “your letter really helped me decide I needed to be out there in the front lines.”

“When I introduced the archbishop,. I said I was glad he was here,” Father Schwartz said. “I want him to hear our pain and our sadness.” Our Lady of Grace, he added, had three cases of abuse in 30-40 years ago, as well as an abuse case at a parish that recently merged into Our Lady of Grace.

Father Schwartz said he also told his parishioners, “I know you won’t be afraid to tell the archbishop after Mass what’s on your mind.” The upshot, according to the pastor: “I know some people were very upset, but there was no meanness.”

“I think it was a move forward,” Father Schwartz told CNS. “I think it went very well.”

In his homily, the archbishop reflected on the story of St. Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped at age 9 and sold five times in the Sudanese slave market.

“She was emotionally and psychologically abused, flogged every day until she bled. As a result she carried 144 scars on her body throughout her life. Eventually, she was bought by an Italian merchant who brought her to Venice, Italy. Through this Italian owner, she came to know a totally different kind of master, the one she called ‘paron,’ the living God of Jesus Christ,” he said.

“I suggest to you St. Josephine as a patroness, an intercessor for the trials that we have been going through these past 10 weeks here in the archdiocese,” Archbishop Nienstedt said. “Let us pray that the Lord will fill us with an abundance of that great virtue, so that we can, like St. Josephine Bakhita, transform the present situation before us into something salvific, saved by our hope in the Lord Jesus.”

Two days after his visit to the parish, Archbishop Nienstedt and the archdiocese announced that the prelate was voluntarily stepping aside from all public ministry, effective immediately, while St. Paul police investigate an allegation that he inappropriately touched a male minor on the buttocks in 2009 during a group photography session following a confirmation ceremony.

In a Dec. 17 letter to Catholics of the archdiocese, Archbishop Nienstedt called the allegation “absolutely and entirely false.”

“I have never once engaged in any inappropriate contact with a minor and I have tried to the very best of my ability to serve this archdiocese and the church faithfully, with honor and due regard for the rights of all, even those with whom I disagree,” he said.

***

Contributing to this story was Mark Pattison in Washington.