Action Alert!

Archbishop Nienstedt isn't—and shouldn't be—the sole focus of the criminal complaint in Minnesota

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 08, 2015

The criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis are very bad news for Archbishop John Nienstedt. He now becomes the American bishop most clearly in the cross-hairs of Church critics; the calls for his resignation will be louder and more frequent.

Like his most recent predecessor on the hot seat, Archbishop Nienstedt has a reputation for stalwart defense of Church teachings. For that reason, some Catholics will be delighted to push for his removal, while others will be inclined to think that the attack against him is ideologically driven.

No doubt there is an ideological tinge to the uproar in Minnesota. But the prosecutor’s charge lists serious problems with the archbishop’s handling of abuse complaints. If Archbishop Nienstedt was ignoring clear evidence of priestly misconduct, he should be held accountable.

Still there’s another element in this story, which has been almost completely ignored by the media in Minnesota. The case that led to the criminal charges—the case of the notorious Father Curtis Wehmeyer—did not arise under Archbishop Nienstedt’s leadership.

Wehmeyer (who is now behind bars, and removed from ministry) was ordained to the priesthood in 2001 by Archbishop Harry Flynn—despite a series of warnings about his conduct that began even before his admission to the seminary. Within a few years there were more complaints: suspicious loitering, frequenting the boys’ bathrooms, an accusation of propositioning in a bookstore. He was sent off for evaluation and treatment and returned. Soon there were more complaints: another bookstore incident, an allegation of cruising in a public park. The criminal complaint devotes 12 pages to the ways in which the archdiocese mishandled Wehmeyer’s case before Archbishop Nienstedt arrived on the scene.

The prosecutor’s listing of complaints against Wehmeyer begins in 2004—after the US bishops had approved the Dallas Charter, which called for “zero tolerance” of sexual abuse and prompt suspension of any priest credibly charged with misconduct involving minors. Anyone acquainted with the complaints against Wehmeyer, as listed in the prosecutor’s report, should certainly have recognized that the man was a threat to young people. And Archbishop Flynn was apprised of the charges, the report notes.

Now you may recall that after approving the Dallas Charter, the US bishops created a committee to supervise the implementation of that charter: to ensure that diocesan leaders were living up to their new responsibilities. Who was the chairman of that committee? Archbishop Harry Flynn.

So there’s a story here. If the chairman of the oversight commission was not implementing the Dallas policies—honoring the spirit of the law as well as the letter—in his own archdiocese, how much credibility could those policies command? It’s an old question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

By all means, investigate Archbishop Nienstedt. Find out what he knew, and when he knew it, and how he reacted. But check the timeline further back, too, and see how Archbishop Flynn treated the problem. Are we looking at the failures of an individual prelate, or of an entire system?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: j.fleming8019 - Jun. 09, 2015 9:32 PM ET USA

    Just a question, really. What specifies "credible" in the sense of "credibly charged", and does "charged" here mean police charges or allegations made without police charges? What defence does a priest have against instant withdrawal from ministry and how does, or does he ever, get reinstated?

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jun. 09, 2015 6:49 PM ET USA

    No, it's not Harry Flynn who's the main problem here, Phil - it's Fr Kevin McDonough, who was Vicar General for years and let a lot of things go on that shouldn't have. His understanding of a priest who solicits kids for sex in a bookstore is that he's "playing with fire, testing boundaries." McDonough is also brother to WH Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough. Would love to see an MSM reporter track that down, but it ain't gonna happen.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Jun. 08, 2015 7:24 PM ET USA

    Archbishop Nienstedt will get the same treatment that Archbishop Finn got. Archbishop Flynn will skate away as he is now retired and "can't trust his memory."