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Archbishop Nienstedt steps aside, to allow investigation of allegation that he denies

Catholic World News - December 17, 2013

Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota, has temporarily stepped aside from his post to allow a full investigation into a charge that he inappropriately touched a young man. The archbishop strongly denies the charge.

The St. Paul archdiocese announced on December 17 that “the archbishop will voluntarily step aside from all public ministry while the matter is being investigated, effective immediately.” Bishop Lee Piché, an auxiliary of the St. Paul archdiocese, will cover the archbishop’s responsibilities.

In a personal message released along with the archdiocesan statement, Archbishop Nienstedt said that the allegation against him was “absolutely and entirely false.” He said that he hoped the investigation “can be thorough but quick,” because he was anxious to return to active ministry. He noted, however, that he would not make further public statements until the investigation is complete.

The allegation involves a single incident in 2009, in which the archbishop allegedly touched the buttocks of a young man during a group-photo session after a Confirmation ceremony. The archdiocese reported that when the charge came to light, it was immediately reported to St. Paul police, and the archdiocese would cooperate with a police inquiry.

Archbishop Nienstedt pointed out that during group-photo sessions after Confirmation ceremonies, he invariably has one hand on his crozier and the other hand either on the shoulder of a newly confirmed young person or on his own pallium. He said that hundreds of photos would confirm that practice.

The archbishop said that he did not know the young man who made the accusation against him. “I presume he is sincere in believing what he claims,” he said. But the accusation comes at a time when Archbishop Nienstedt is under heavy public criticism.

“I have taken strong stands on the moral teachings of the Church and been criticized for it,” the archbishop said. In particular, he has been denounced by gay-rights advocates for encouraging opposition to same-sex marriage. More recently, the St. Paul archdiocese has been under intense scrutiny because of new allegations that Church officials had failed to report charges of clerical abuse. Most of those allegations involve incidents that occurred before Archbishop Nienstedt took over leadership of the Minnesota archdiocese.

Archbishop Nienstedt is the first American bishop to remove himself from ministry in order to allow an investigation of a charge against him. (The US bishops, in their "Dallas Charter," allowed for the suspension of an accused priest, but made no provision for accusations against a bishop.) The St. Paul archdiocese, in its public statement on the matter, said that the archbishop's decision to step aside had been made in consultation with the apostolic nuncio, indicating Vatican approval for the archbishop's action.

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