Anniversaries are important. Most are deserving of celebration. Some are to be remembered lest we ever forget. We are approaching just such an anniversary.
On July 1, 2014 Commonweal magazine broke the story that Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis had been under investigation for “multiple allegations” of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians and priests. Ten men had signed affidavits filing their official complaints.
Rumors of Nienstedt’s misconduct was not news. I had heard such allegations as long as ten years ago. What made this story news was that ten men had now spoken up, telling their story and registering their complaint with officials. Once Commonweal broke the story, we learened the Archdiocese had hired a law firm in late 2013 to conduct what the Archdiocese then promised to be a full and independent investigation.
Let’s be clear, the allegations against our Archbishop were made by adult men. We are not talking about pedophilia or sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults. The better comparison is with disgraced Cardinal Archbishop Keith O’Brien of Scotland. At least five men – three priests, a former priest and a former seminarian – accused O’Brien of either sexually harassing them or pressuring them into sex, in allegations that went back to the 1980s.
O’Brien admitted “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.” He was discretely “disinvited” from participating in the conclave that elected Pope Francis. In March 2015 it was announced that he had renounced the “rights and privileges” of his office but gets to keep his prestigious title.
Regular readers of Kneading Bread know that I have frequently reiterated what rank-and-file Catholics know all too well… the root cause of our sex abuse crisis in the church is the culture of clericalism, hierarchical arrogance and preoccupation with protecting power and privilege. Readers will also recall that I have called for Neinstedt’s resignation in these posts on at least three occasions.
On July 7, 2014 I wrote: It’s long past time for more than a little honesty in our church. We are in urgent need of changing the sieve that keeps secret the tragic truth poisoning our church family. Honest confessions are long overdue. Actually, we need far more than “a little” honesty.
We have a right to integrity and transparency. We have a right to hold those who claim positions of moral leadership to be persons worthy of emulation. We have the right to know the truth about any who claim authority to teach moral truth.
Ten official affidavits complaining of harassment and/or misconduct does not sound like behavior among “consenting adults.” We have a right to know the truth about these ten complaints and for those in authority to act appropriately. If there is nothing to hide, then what’s there to hide?
All abuse is perpetrated by a culture that holds its victims hostage within silence and secrecy. This is true of abuse within families, schools, civic organizations or churches. What makes the allegations against our Archbishop so egregious is that he presumes to provide moral leadership and teach moral truths. Hiding behind a wall of silence and secrecy perpetuates the abuse.
This “culture” of silence and secrecy — delay strategies to bury the story, keeping a low public profile, hoping we will forget — further victimizes this Archdiocese and this community which deserves, expects and has received far better from Catholic leadership.
Peter Day, a priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra, Australia recently wrote a passionate call for reform in light of the sex abuse scandal roiling his country and the whole church. He implores us to fully acknowledge what we all know — too many of our shepherds have acted like the “hired men” in John’s Gospel “who abandon the sheep when they see a wolf coming … leaving the wolves to attack and scatter the sheep.” (Jn 10: 12)
Day further exposes what we all recognize but feel powerless to change: “Underpinning this hired men culture is an all-too pervasive clericalism in which men feel set-apart, vainly pursuing the trappings of power and prestige — acting like corporate CEOs hell-bent on protecting the company brand instead of like shepherds willing to lay down their lives (and their reputations) for their sheep.”
But we are NOT powerless. We are not pawns. We are The People of God. From half-way around the world, Peter Day expresses our local reality and our need. “In the pews, in the villages, in the schools; people everywhere, are longing for us to simply face facts, to face the truth with humility — that’s what good shepherds do.”
July 1 will be the one year anniversary of Commonweal exposing the charges made against our Archbishop. Months ago the media asked the Archdiocese about the disposition of the allegations. Archdiocesan officials admitted that the law firm had completed its work but the investigation was continuing so no further information could be shared.
July 1 is an anniversary we must not forget. Media should again ask Archdiocesan leadership. Editorial boards must clearly express the needs and expectations of the community. Parishioners would do well to inquire of their pastors about the disposition of the charges against one for whom we pray by name at every Eucharist. Civic leaders have a right to inquire about any who would claim high moral profile in our community.
Powers that be will want us to forget. Summer in Minnesota offers a wealth of diversions and many pleasant distractions. But, remember we must! “In the pews, in the villages, in the schools; people everywhere, are longing for us to simply face facts, to face the truth with humility — that’s what good shepherds do.”
We want, need and deserve a better shepherd. Archbishop Neinstedt, its time to do the right thing!
The article by Peter Day is from Global Pulse Magazine [link]. This is a new journal covering stories and offering opinion from around the world on Catholic topics or issues of moral import. I am not sure whether you need a subscription to access the full story. I paid $12 for an annual subscription and eagerly recommend you consider the same.