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Archbishop Fails Upwards In Wine Country

John Nienstedt presided over moral and financial ruin in his archdiocese. Now wealthy conservative Catholics have him fighting for 'accountability,' 'reformation,' and 'spiritual renewal'

An angry Catholic reader writes:

Last week, Timothy Busch, the founder of the Napa Institute put out an article titled, “Our Great Commission: The Call of the Laity to Holiness & Reform in Times of Scandal.”

Busch says that he is “disheartened” by the McCarrick scandal. He invites readers to pray for “the Church hierarchy to find the courage to root out every sin and restore truth, beauty, and goodness to the Church,” and invites ideas for how the Napa Institute can contribute to the reform of the Church.

But look at the Napa Institute’s schedule for the Eighth Annual Napa Institute Conference, held July 11-15, 2018. Disgraced Archbishop John Nienstedt is the celebrant for five of the conference masses.

Archbishop Nienstedt was forced out of office in 2015 for failing to properly handle sex abuse allegations. However, there were also allegations of homosexual activity with adults, including priests and seminarians. Documents released in 2016 revealed that the then-Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, not only quashed an investigation into Nienstedt’s alleged abuse of seminarians and priests, but also ordered investigators to destroy documents.

In other words, there is substantial evidence that Nienstedt was guilty of many of the same offenses as McCarrick, and that this was covered up at very high levels. No evidence has been brought forward, as far as I’m aware, that Nienstedt has been exonerated; he has just been allowed to retire in comfort to the California wine country, where he gets to rub shoulders with wealthy and powerful Catholics.

Nienstedt’s involvement with the Napa Institute is not a one-time affair. In 2015, just a month and a half after his resignation from Minneapolis-St. Paul, he appeared on a panel on the family at the Napa Institute conference, identified as “Archbishop Emeritus John C. Nienstedt.” In 2016, he went to reside at the Napa Institute. He also celebrated mass at the 2017 Napa Institute conference, held July 26-30, 2017. These ties are long-standing, and go deep.

In light of this, the crocodile tears for the McCarrick scandal are a stunning display of hypocrisy, coming from one of Nienstedt’s chief protectors.

Read this lengthy Minnesota Public Radio report on how the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul covered up clerical sex abuse for a long time.

Understand this: Nienstedt was so bad at covering up for abuse that in 2013, his own chancellor in charge of canonical affairs got sick and tired of trying to deal with it internally, quit her job, and went to the police and the media. 

Nienstedt ultimately had to resign over it — and so did his No. 2 bishop, who had the year before been tasked with investigating sexual misconduct allegations against Nienstedt himself.

The local authorities filed criminal charges against the archdiocese. Overwhelmed by settlement costs in cases of sexually abusive clergy, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy.

And now, Archbishop Nienstedt has left his bankrupt diocese to retire in comfort and luxury in California wine country, and to continue a life of public ministry to the faithful, under the auspices of the Napa Institute and the patronage of Timothy Busch. Let’s listen in briefly to Busch’s grief over Cardinal McCarrick’s fall, and his “call to holiness” in its wake:

The rejection of Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae by so many in the Church, including at its highest levels, has come to fruition. It is time we demand sound teaching and the action of every Catholic, Lay and Ordained. It is only then that we will begin to restore trust in God’s Church and all Catholic Institutions that provide so much good.

It has been the aim of the Napa Institute, since its inception in 2010, to gather together the faithful with a focus on sound catechesis, deep spiritual renewal, and camaraderie. As such, I, and the Napa Institute team, are committed to gathering with other Lay leaders to chart a new way forward and to hold accountable all leadership within the Church, both lay and ordained. We must insist on a new governance to avoid further or repeated scandal.

Says the man who touts the leadership of the disgraced Nienstedt! More:

I ask you to join me in constant prayer for all of those who have been victimized by the failure of our leaders, for the lay faithful to grow in strength and holiness as we work together to renew the Church, and for the Church hierarchy to find the courage to root out every sin and restore truth, beauty, and goodness to the Church. I predict this will be the beginning of a new period of Church reformation and spiritual renewal.

Fine sentiments, certainly — but I honestly don’t understand the disconnect between what the conservative Catholic institute says it’s trying to do, and the place it gives a man like Archbishop Nienstedt, who lives in Napa Valley now.

Even if Nienstedt has been falsely accused of being unfaithful to his vows with men, he presided over a total disaster — morally and financially — for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and was forced to resign in disgrace. Morever, the Vatican ambassador to the US quashed an investigation into whether or not Nienstedt was screwing men.

Honoring a man like that is the way forward to accountability, reformation and spiritual renewal? Can Tim Busch and the leadership of Napa Institute not grasp how ridiculous this sounds?

I mean, a wine country sinecure founded by rich conservative Catholics is not exactly failing upwards by leaving your shattered diocese and taking over as archpriest of a Roman basilica, but it ain’t bupkis either.

I’m not being sarcastic here: if a normal man with a conscience had failed as terribly as Nienstedt had, at such horrendous cost to the Church and its people, he would spend out the rest of his days in prayer, penance, and service at a monastery, or in some ministry to the poor. Not this cat. He’s in wine country.

UPDATE: Minnesota Catholic comments:

I’m not defending Neinstedt, but the filth and rot in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis goes back at least 40 years and two archbishops before Neinstedt. He inherited a mess that no one in the public knew about. His biggest mistake was probably letting the same priest who had been responsible for handling wayward priests for at least 30 years continue in that role, which allowed that priest to continue to mishandle clergy misconduct.

The former chancellor of the archdiocese signed a 140-page affidavit outlying all of the mishandling of these cases, some long before Neinstedt ever arrived in Minnesota.

At the time of it all, I assumed that the priest responsible for handling for misconduct cases was given a pass by the media and the authorities because his brother was a high-staff person in the Obama administration. Now, in light of all that has come out in the last couple of months, I’m starting to think he got away with mishandling cases because he and his superiors were just as corrupt as the priests he was supposed to supervising.

Neinstedt was no angel based on what I have heard, and I’m glad he’s gone, but if he had been liberal the press here probably would’ve given him a free pass on everything and we’d still be in the dark.

Notably, our current Archbishop was in line to be the archbishop of Newark but agreed to be assigned to St. Paul. Given that McCarrick was once in Newark, I find Archbishop Hebda’s silence on the McCarrick events curious and disappointing.

Yes, it is true that it would be wrong to blame Nienstedt for all that went wrong in Mpls-St Paul, but the fact is, he went badly wrong there. Fair or not, he was the archbishop when it all came down, and he was badly tarnished. So he goes to wine country to be chaplain to rich conservative Catholics? I seriously don’t get it. I read about the Napa Institute, and I imagine I agree with nearly everything they stand for on paper. But how can its leader, Busch, make statements like that while embracing a man like Nienstedt? You can’t, not without making a fool of yourself, and discrediting the mission of your organization. The optics are genuinely terrible there. Would it have killed Nienstedt to go do a John Profumo rehabilitation? 

UPDATE.2: A reader points out that the Napa Institute has deleted information from its website, rendering some of the links above inactive. Said the reader, “This shows that they know this story looked bad and are trying to hide the evidence.”

The reader sent cached versions of the schedule, and other evidence that Nienstedt was on the Napa Institute site. The point is not that Nienstedt is some kind of criminal, or a villain who doesn’t deserve to be in polite company. The point is that Tom Busch, who runs the Napa Institute, made a big public statement about how awful the scandals are, and how everybody should work to root out sin in the Church, work for truth, renewal, and so on — and yet remains oblivious to how aligning the Institute so publicly with a failed archbishop who is an icon of the abuse scandal makes this call to holiness a laughingstock.


UPDATE.2: This from a reader:

Mr. Dreher. I am a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. I have read your story on our former Archbishop with great interest as I have always felt that neither the priests nor the faithful of the Archdiocese were ever told the full story of what transpired during his tenure before he was asked to resign in disgrace. There had been much reporting in the local media regarding a law firm called Greene Espel that had been commissioned to do an investigation into several claims that were made against the former Archbishop and despite an amount of over $100k being spent on this, it was never released. Where is this report and what do they fear? Many believe had it been exonerating to him, that it would have been published in The Catholic Spirit which is our Archdiocesan newspaper. It was also reported that the victims attorneys in our recent $210 million dollar sex abuse settlement had initially asked for its release as a condition of settlement. However, when the final settlement was announced, there was no longer any such demand.

It is true that Archbishop had been accused falsely of groping a minor during a photo at the Cathedral during Confirmation. This should not be mistaken with other allegations of inappropriate behavior towards seminarians or the mishandling of an accused priest who was later convicted of child abuse while Archbishop Nienstedt was in control. This priest remained assigned despite the protests of priests who were his classmates who had spoken out. I myself as a seminarian had first hand experience with this priest (Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer) who had given me the creeps. Was Archbishop Nienstedt responsible for the systemic coverup in the Archdiocese? Of course not, it existed long before he arrived but he certainly perpetuated the culture of secrecy, fear and intimidation of those who dared speak out. Former Chancellor Jennifer Haselberger had told me that the culture of this Archdiocese was unlike any other that she had experienced. This was not a compliment. We have experienced the resignations (forced or voluntarily) in the last 6 years of an Archbishop, Auxiliary Bishop, Vicar General, Judicial Vicar, Canonical Chancellor and Vice-Rector of a seminary. The problems run deep and I pray this current situation will for once force full and honest transparency about payments that were made to abusive priest as well as payments that were made to victims under the cloak of secrecy. Please keep up the good work and thank you for using your blog as a way to encourage the faithful to take action and demand accountability.