ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis said the archdiocese has made significant progress in improving procedures for addressing sexual abuse claims and he will not resign over past missteps on such cases.
“We must continue to address head-on the terrible scandal of clerical sexual abuse,” he said in his column in the July 30 issue of The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. “It is apparent that this is the work of the church we are called to address at this time.”
“To say that this has been a difficult year is quite an understatement,” he said. “Catholics have witnessed many troubling media reports, and many of us have had difficult conversations with friends and family about what it means to be Catholic and why we still profess the faith.”
Archbishop Nienstedt and the archdiocese have faced severe criticism amid sexual misconduct allegations in the media last year concerning certain priests in Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and how their cases were handled by archdiocesan officials.
In response, the archdiocese established a new lay-run Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force last October. It was charged with conducting a full review of archdiocesan policies and practices and “any and all issues” related to clergy sexual misconduct.
Archbishop Nienstedt also appointed an archdiocesan vicar for ministerial standards responsible for all issues related to clergy sexual misconduct and the archdiocese hired a Los Angeles-based firm to review all clergy files. The majority of recent claims are about alleged abuse that took place in the 1970s and 1980s.
In his column, he acknowledged he has been “the subject of two investigations, which have brought with them more public scrutiny.”
“I am sorry for the distractions I have inadvertently caused that have taken the focus away from the challenging and rewarding work we do as the Catholic Church in our local community,” he said.
In response to calls that he resign, he said he will continue to serve. Among those urging he resign were the Minneapolis Star Tribune in a July 27 editorial and a columnist for the Pioneer Press.
“I have acknowledged my responsibility in the current crisis we face, and I also take responsibility for leading our archdiocese to a new and better day,” said the archbishop, who has headed the archdiocese since 2008; previously he was its coadjutor archbishop.
He said he has received messages calling him “a hypocrite, a domineering boss and a liar.”
“Others have written that I am a courageous moral leader and a true shepherd,” he continued. “I have read them all. I am grateful for everyone who has taken the time to write, regardless of how they feel, as most believe they are acting in the best interests of the church.”
“I will continue to listen to those who express concerns about my leadership, but I will also continue serving as I have been called to do,” he wrote. “I am devoted to serving this local church, and I will continue to do so and to apply these hard lessons that I have learned over the past months.
“While it may be difficult to believe, the suffering we have endured is bearing much fruit in reform of practices and correction of decisions that were made in the past, either by me or my predecessors.”
Archbishop Nienstedt highlighted his creation of a new leadership team that he said “operates under the philosophy of ‘victims first.'”
“I have empowered a new team of bishops, parish and religious order priests, archdiocesan employees, lay Catholics and non-Catholics to assist me and provide consultation,” he said. “They continually operate from the perspective of how we can best help victims of sexual abuse and their families.”
He stated that he has “never knowingly covered up clergy sexual abuse.”
“I have, however, been too trusting of our internal process,” he said, adding that he should have been more personally involved in addressing “matters of priest misconduct.”
“Since the completion of the independent internal review of all our clergy files, I have removed several clergy from active ministry and publicly named them while we await review of their files by the police and the archdiocese’s Clergy Review Board,” he said.
“While it is very clear that we did not handle all complaints the way we should have in the past, we are now doing all we can to make sure that we are living up to our commitment to be accountable, transparent, and are, in fact, providing safe environments for our children” he said. “I receive regular updates on any misconduct cases and the work of the Clergy Review Board.”
Archbishop Nienstedt said he has “always been honest with the Catholics of this local church.”
“I have addressed the accusations against me head on, following all the protocols we have in place for all of our priests. I have asked for the recent investigation because I had nothing to hide and wanted to be vindicated from false allegations, as anyone would,” he said.
In early July, the archbishop ordered an investigation of himself immediately after he became aware of allegations against him involving events alleged to have occurred a decade ago before he began serving in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
In announcing the investigation, he called the accusations “absolutely and entirely false.” They do not involve minors and do not implicate any kind of illegal or criminal behavior.
In December 2013, the archbishop voluntarily stepped aside from all public ministry while St. Paul Police investigated an allegation made Dec. 16 that year that he inappropriately touched a male minor on the buttocks in 2009 during a group photo session after a confirmation ceremony.
He returned to public ministry this March, following a thorough investigation by police of the claim and the announcement by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office that no charges would be filed against the archbishop.
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