A Catholic archbishop stands accused of leading a clandestine gay life and of helping to cover up another priest’s abuse of children.
Court documents released on Wednesday point to Bishop John Nienstedt, the former archbishop of Minneapolis-St Paul, being influenced by his personal relationship with Father Curtis Wehmeyer to turn a blind eye to claims Wehmeyer molested young boys.
There were also concerns that misconduct by Nienstedt himself affected his judgment.
One priest claimed Nienstedt propositioned him while they were staying overnight at a rectory in Michigan. The unnamed cleric declared, “I know when I’m being hit on.”
Another priest said the bishop “began massaging his neck” while he was driving.
Attorneys took affidavits from 11 credible witnesses who recounted “sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and reprisals in response to the rejection of unwelcome advances.” (They also claim they had at least two dozen more leads to pursue.)
Several witnesses claimed Nienstedt was well-known for leading a “promiscuous gay lifestyle” in both Detroit and abroad. (More than one claimed Nienstedt had a sexual relationship with a Swiss guard.)
Nienstedt admitted he received anonymous letters referencing alleged trips to a gay strip club across the Detroit River in Canada. The letters called on him to resign and come out.
He admitted he had been “dogged” by gay rumors for years but insists they were false charges made by priests with an axe to grind.
“I am a heterosexual man who has been celibate my entire life,” Nienstedt claimed in a statement.
“I have never solicited sex [or] improperly touched anyone, and have not used my authority to cover up, or even try to cover up, any allegation of sexual abuse.”
Nienstedt claims he did not know about Wehmeyer’s improprieties, about the criminal conviction of Rev. Gilbert Gustafson for molesting a 10-year-old boy, or that Rev. Kenneth LaVan—accused of sexual assaulting at least one teenage girl in the ’80s—was still in the ministry.
The report however, suggests he was aware of these circumstances much earlier.
In December 2013, police investigated a claim that Nienstedt touched a boy on the buttocks, which he insists was “absolutely and entirely false.”
All the allegations against him, he says, are simply payback for his opposition to marriage equality.
“I believe that the allegations have been made as a personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with Catholic Church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage.”
In 2012, Nienstedt used more than $600,000 of church money to support Amendment 1, which would have banned same-sex marriage in the Minnesota. (Voters rejected the measure by just five percentage points.)
“Each time I have spoken out I have received hundreds of threatening, insulting, and sometimes frightening letters, emails and phone calls.”
Wow, he’s practically been crucified.
Nienstedt insists he never told anyone about the threats because “I didn’t want to speak poorly about the men making the allegations.”
“It is a matter of public record that they do not agree with the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, and I have consistently taken a stand with the Church on those issues.”
In 2014, Nienstedt ordered a music director at a church in Victoria, Minnesota, to resign after he married his longtime partner.
While Jamie Moore (above) was not a priest, Nienstedt insisted “church employees must recognize and accept the responsibilities that accompany their ministry.”
As far as covering up any abuse, Nienstedt only admits “I should have asked more questions [and] I should have demanded more answers.”
Father Daniel Griffith, the diocese’s Delegate for Safe Environment, raised issue with Nienstedt’s closeness with Wehmeyer and says Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States, ordered him to destroy evidence against Nienstedt. (Viganò served as Pope Francis’ representative until he retired in April.)
“What has unfolded in the face of compelling evidence amounts to a good old fashioned cover-up to preserve power and avoid scandal and accountability,” said Griffith in a scathing 11-page report.
Wehmeyer (above) eventually pleaded guilty in 2012 to possessing child pornography and molesting two boys in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin.
When prosecutors announced in June 2015 that they were bringing criminal charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children from sexual abuse, Nienstedt resigned. (He insisted, however, he was leaving “with a clear conscience, knowing that my team and I have put in place solid protocols to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults.”)
Those charges were dropped in exchange for the archdiocese’s admission it failed to protect the three minors, as part of a civil settlement by the victims and their families. Nienstedt remains an archbishop in good standing and recently lead a Mass in California.
In 2013, a judge in Ramsey County ordered the archdiocese to release the names of all the priests with credible allegations of child sexual abuse against them.
In all, 33 priests were named.
Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda, who replaced Nienstedt last year, admitted on Wednesday that “words alone are not enough—we must do better.”