Archbishop Hebda restricts public ministry of his predecessor, Nienstedt

Archbishop Hebda restricts public ministry of his predecessor, Nienstedt December 16, 2018

The archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Bernard Hebda, posted a letter on the matter on the archdiocesan website Friday. An excerpt:

I remain troubled by the failure to bring closure to the 2014 investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct with adult males leveled against my predecessor, Archbishop John Nienstedt. You will recall that Archbishop Nienstedt had delegated the investigation to his senior auxiliary bishop, who in turn sought the assistance of two separate law firms. In 2015, the investigative materials were submitted to the then-Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Also in 2015, the investigation’s underlying allegations were provided by the Archdiocese to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. As far as I know, any effort by the Vatican to further address the allegations was suspended in June 2015 when Archbishop Nienstedt resigned his office. Thus, the matter remains unresolved for the accusers, for Archbishop Nienstedt and for the public. I share the frustration that is felt by them, and believe this situation highlights the need for a better-defined process and independent mechanism to resolve allegations made against bishops.

I am also aware that resolution of the 2014 investigation would, in itself, no longer fully address the question of Archbishop Nienstedt’s status. After the Archbishop had already resigned and left Minnesota, a separate allegation emerged. In 2016, Ramsey County shared with us and made public an allegation it received that in 2005, then-Bishop of New Ulm Nienstedt, while at a World Youth Day event in Germany, had invited two unaccompanied minors to his hotel room to get out of the rain and wet clothing. It is alleged that he then proceeded to undress in front of them and invited them to do the same. Archbishop Nienstedt denies this ever happened. My opinion is this allegation needs to be fully addressed before a definitive resolution of Archbishop Nienstedt’s suitability for ministry can be made. For that reason, I transmitted Ramsey County’s documentation concerning this allegation to the Nuncio in 2016.

I have been asked repeatedly whether there are any restrictions on Archbishop Nienstedt’s ministry.  My answer has always been that although I do not know of any, I am the wrong person to ask: Bishops report to the Holy Father, not to each other. I have no general juridical authority over Archbishop Nienstedt or any other bishop outside the Archdiocese.

I can, however, exercise some control over the types of public ministry permitted in this Archdiocese.  With all of this in mind, and in the hope of advancing a resolution to this matter, I am taking the following steps:

  1. The Archdiocesan Ministerial Review Board has recently recommended that I publicly clarify that Archbishop Nienstedt, like any priest facing similar allegations, would not be free to exercise public ministry in this Archdiocese until all open allegations are resolved. I concur. As is true in similar cases involving our priests and deacons, this is not intended to convey an indication or presumption of guilt. While this may cause some pain, my hope is that this decision prompts further action by those with authority over Archbishop Nienstedt to resolve this question.
  2. Further, I will continue in the near term to advocate for the creation of an independent review board. In this way, my hope is that resolution of the allegations and any additional investigation can be handled in a way that is fair to all and worthy of public trust.
  3. Finally, I am publicly committing to transmit the entire 2014 Archdiocesan investigation to whatever national or regional review board is created.

I share the disappointment of many that more progress has not been made at the national and international levels to address bishop accountability. It is my prayer and hope that the February meeting Pope Francis is convening with bishops from around the world produces tangible results. We need a review board at the national or regional level – similar to our local Ministerial Review Board – with the authority and credibility to address allegations of misconduct against bishops and make fitness-for-ministry recommendations to the Holy Father.

Archbishop Nienstedt responded: 

In an e-mail response, Nienstedt said he welcomes an investigation and that it is church policy to remove a priest from public ministry during an investigation. He said he is not celebrating mass in the archdiocese.

Nienstedt wrote that it is “difficult to defend myself because these allegations are of the ‘he said, he said’ nature.”

He added, “It is my word against the accusers and, as much as they seem to want to discredit me, I don’t want to harm them. I am relieved, however, that Archbishop Hebda will be sharing the 2014 Archdiocesan investigation to an independent review board. I welcome an impartial look at the facts and the opportunity to defend myself.”


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