Moral Low Ground


Twin Cities Archbishop Resigns Amid Criminal Charges of Child Sex Abuse Coverup

John Nienstedt (Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis)

John Nienstedt (Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis)

The archbishop of one of America’s largest Roman Catholic archdioceses has resigned after prosecutors charged church leaders with failing to protect children from a pedophile priest and covering up clergy child sex abuse.

The Associated Press reports Archbishop John Nienstedt, head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché stepped down on Monday after years of pressure. Their resignation comes days after Minnesota prosecutors criminally charged the archdiocese—the nation’s 12th largest, with more than 730,000 Catholics—with failure to protect children from unspeakable harm at the hands of Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest who is now serving a five-year prison term after being convicted of sexually abusing boys in 2010.

Wehmeyer is far from the only pedophile priest in an archdiocese plagued by allegations of clergy sex abuse. In December 2013, Ramsey County District Judge John Van de North ordered the archdiocese, along with the adjacent Archdiocese of Winona, to release the names of 46 suspected pedophile priests. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis began compiling a list of dozens of credibly accused clergy child sex abusers in 2004. That list, which contains 33 names, was allowed to remain private as a result of a 2009 court ruling.

The Winona archdiocese released the names of 14 priests and clergy suspected of raping or molesting children in December 2013. At the time, Archbishop Nienstedt apologized for the “insufferable harm” suffered by victims of the abuse, but resisted calls to resign over the epidemic of abuse. That changed on Monday, when Nienstedt said he was stepping down to avoid being a “distraction” as his archdiocese deals with the clergy sex abuse crisis.

“In order to give the Archdiocese a new beginning amidst the many challenges we face, I have submitted my resignation as Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis to our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and I have just received word that he has accepted it,” Nienstedt said in a statement. “My leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of His Church and those who perform them.” Nienstedt added that he resigns “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.”

The resignations come just days after Pope Francis I authorized the creation of a new Vatican tribunal that will hear cases of bishops accused of failing to protect children from pedophile clergy. The move, which was welcomed by clergy sex abuse survivors and advocates, is aimed at protecting children and vulnerable adults, as well as at improving the Church’s image, which has suffered tremendous worldwide damage due to the global scope of the problem and a lack of accountability for clergy who commit horrific sex crimes against children.

It is unclear whether Nienstedt and Piché will be brought before the new tribunal. They resigned under the code of canon law that permits bishops to step down due to illness or other “grave” reasons that render them unfit to hold office.

In April, the Vatican accepted the resignation of Kansas City, Missouri Bishop Robert Finn, the only US bishop who has been criminally convicted of covering up abuse. In July 2013, it was revealed that Catholic officials in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where more than 8,000 accusations of abuse were revealed the previous year, also protected accused pedophile priests from criminal prosecution. In 2012, Philadelphia Monsignor William Lynn was sentenced to three to six years behind bars for covering up child sex crimes committed by clergy for more than a decade.

In December 2013, the Los Angeles Times published extensive details chronicling former Cardinal Roger Mahony’s complicity in a massive child sex abuse scandal involving hundreds of priests and other members of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The Times detailed Mahony’s active involvement in covering up clergy sex abuse and protecting pedophile priests from prosecution, going back to 1986, his first year as archbishop, when a priest told him he molested two boys. That priest, Father Michael Baker, raped or molested at least 23 boys, some as young as five years old, over a span of three decades. Mahony repeatedly refused to report child-raping clergy to police, transferring criminal abusers out of state to avoid investigations. Many of those transferred clergy continued to rape and molest children.

Victims of clergy sex abuse reached a record $660 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007, with Cardinal Mahony, who has since retired, apologizing for the abuse. The Catholic Church has paid out nearly $3 billion to victims of sexually abusive clergy in the United States alone. Numerous US archdioceses, including Milwaukee, have declared bankruptcy due to financial strain from settling clergy sex abuse claims.

Last April, Pope Francis apologized for the “evil” acts committed by pedophile priests and other clergy. Three months later, he estimated that two percent of Catholic clergy, or some 9,000 individuals including “priests and even bishops and cardinals,” are pedophiles. In February 2014, the United Nations issued a scathing report condemning the “code of silence” imposed by Vatican leadership on clerics to prevent them from reporting sex crimes, as well as the Church’s practice of relocating known abusers from parish to parish “in an attempt to cover up such crimes.”

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