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Nienstedt’s Millstone

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A Catholic reader sends me the latest Minnesota Public Radio story about corruption in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul. He writes:

Two of the men quoted in the article are former pastors of mine; they are good men. There is much in the Church here that is rotten, though. I mourn for my children, who are being driven away by the hypocrisy and indifference.

The story is long, and shows that there are still, at this very late date in the Catholic abuse scandal timeline, stories that can shock the reader. What shocks about this one is the lengths to which members of the Catholic hierarchy will go, in its self-serving pride, to protect itself, the good of the Church and its faithful be damned.

The gist of it is that Archbishop John Nienstedt, under fire for covering up and abetting sexual abuse by at least one of his priests, approved an investigation into his own background after being confronted with sworn affidavits, two of them from priests, alleging that Nienstedt had made sexual overtures to them. The church-funded investigation began turning up information that sullied Nienstedt’s reputation even worse. From the story:

Nienstedt had authorized the investigation with the expectation that it would clear his name. Instead, it threatened to ruin it. At the meeting last spring, the advisers went around the room. Each said Nienstedt should resign.

A few days later, Auxiliary Bishops Lee Piche and Andrew Cozzens traveled to Washington to bring that message to the pope’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio. It was a brave move that threatened the careers of both men. Piche and Cozzens had hoped Vigano would agree that the future of the archdiocese was more important than the reputation of one man.

What happened at that meeting is unknown. Piche, Cozzens and Vigano did not respond to interview requests.

However, when the bishops returned to Minnesota, everything changed. The investigation, as it was originally ordered, was over.

Nienstedt would stay in power another 14 months after choosing to curtail and diminish efforts aimed at uncovering the truth about his private life, efforts that reached the highest levels of the Catholic Church in the United States. At one point he accused an investigator of bias for disagreeing with him on same-sex marriage. The investigation brought significant costs, as well: The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for it, and it destroyed Nienstedt’s reputation among the clergy.

In the end, his efforts weren’t enough. He would become increasingly isolated and desperate as his closest advisers turned against him. And on Monday, the Vatican announced that Nienstedt had resigned. Piche, one of the two bishops who met with the nuncio last year, stepped down the same day.

The MPR piece details Nienstedt’s very costly (financially) efforts to derail the investigation, and, it appears, to engineer a whitewash. We don’t know why the papal nuncio, Viganò, went along with Nienstedt’s plan to end the original investigation, but we do know that both men, as young priests, worked together in the same Vatican office. As reported, it appears that the papal nuncio intervened to do Nienstedt a big favor.

What emerges in the story is that Nienstedt appears to be a closeted gay man who has spent his clerical career abusing his authority. Nienstedt was a seminary rector from 1988 to 1994. According to affidavits, Nienstedt was unhealthily preoccupied with young men. A bombshell affidavit by a former seminarian named James Heathcott alleges that Nienstedt forced him out of the seminary because he resisted Nienstedt’s advances. From the story:

Heathcott had enrolled in Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit in 1987, when he was 18 years old. Nienstedt became rector of the seminary the following year, and immediately, the tone at the seminary changed, Heathcott said.

Nienstedt called him into his office and asked, “Have you explored your sexuality?” and “Do you think you have homosexual tendencies?” according to Heathcott’s affidavit.

“I responded truthfully that I was not gay. He nonetheless suggested that I should consider participating in a counseling program for reasons I still do not know.”

Later that year, Nienstedt stopped Heathcott in the hallway near his bedroom and invited him on a weekend ski trip at a “private chalet,” Heathcott said in his affidavit.

Heathcott declined and told Nienstedt that the invitation appeared to contradict Nienstedt’s own statements to seminarians about the importance of maintaining proper boundaries. “Nienstedt made little or no response other than perhaps ‘ok’ and walked away,” according to the affidavit.

A few days later, Heathcott found an envelope in his mailbox stamped “confidential.”

Inside was a letter from Nienstedt “to the effect that in light of my ‘recent behaviors’ I was sending the ‘wrong message’ to other seminarians and that it was in the best interest of the seminary and the formation of others for me to leave,” Heathcott said in his affidavit. “I was outraged by this.”

That night, Heathcott left to attend a wedding. When he returned the following morning, Nienstedt asked where he had been and told him to pack his belongings and leave the seminary.

“The situation was ridiculous and I could not take it anymore,” Heathcott said in his affidavit. “I was angry — and devastated.”

Heathcott left the seminary. A short while later, he wrote a letter to the archbishop of Detroit, Cardinal Edmund Szoka, that explained how Nienstedt had kicked him out of the seminary. In his letter, Heathcott said, he expressed concern for the other seminarians.

Szoka never replied.

In his affidavit, Heathcott reflected on his contact with Nienstedt as a young man. “I consider Nienstedt’s interactions with me to be a kind of grooming,” he said.

“I believe that I was expelled from Sacred Heart because I rejected the invitation to go on a private ski trip with Nienstedt and two seminarians,” he said. “This event … impacted me significantly. I am often asked how I regard my time in the seminary, and I relate that my experience was wonderful although I would never wish on anyone what Nienstedt did to me. I believe that he denied me the chance to continue exploring my calling to the priesthood to its fruition. While I have no regrets — my life is wonderful today — there is a sense of ‘what if’ that I still carry with me.”

This is the kind of thing — gay men in authority in seminaries forcing those who resist out — documented in Michael S. Rose’s book Goodbye, Good Men I have heard that this is a thing of a past generation of seminary rectors, but I honestly don’t know. What seems hard to deny, at least in Archbishop Nienstedt’s case, is that the past is not even past — that his alleged homosexuality probably conditioned his behavior towards abusive priests. Whether it was a matter of him going easy on these bad priests because he hoped for, or was receiving, sexual attention, or out of a twisted sense of solidarity, or because he feared blackmail, nobody can say at this point.

What boggles the mind is that Nienstedt, knowing all of these things about himself, would not simply resign for the good of the Church, and of his reputation. He not only caused the archdiocese to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of the faithful’s tithes to investigate him, he caused it to spend even more on a separate investigation it looks like, from the reporting, that he hoped to manipulate to clear him. And for whatever reason, the pope’s representative in Washington backed Nienstedt on this.

It’s an appalling story. Read the whole thing.  It really does speak to the institutional corruption here, and of the utter selfishness of certain men who betrayed their offices and squandered their moral authority to serve themselves. I’ll repeat the words of the Minneapolis Catholic reader who sent me the MPR piece:

I mourn for my children, who are being driven away by the hypocrisy and indifference.

Nienstedt deserves a millstone, and he’s not the only one.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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