A battle is brewing in Battle Creek, Michigan, where residents are less than pleased that an archbishop accused of covering up a sex-abuse scandal has now embraced a second calling as a pastor in their town.
John Clayton Nienstedt served as the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis for seven years but resigned this June, shortly after a prosecutor announced criminal charges and a civil suit against the archdiocese for allegedly covering up child sex abuse. Now Nienstedt has taken up a new post in Michigan, filling in for a sick old friend at St. Philip’s Roman Catholic Church.
A spokesperson for the Kalamazoo diocese told local papers that the arrangement between the archbishop and Father John Fleckenstein, who is ill, is just a simple agreement between friends. But detractors worry that the archbishop’s controversial past is getting a free pass.
Jennifer Haselberger served as Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. She was also the person who revealed how the archdiocese allegedly hid sex-abuse allegations.
Haselberger finds it plausible that Nienstedt and Fleckenstein didn’t expect the blowback in Battle Creek.
“[Nienstedt] doesn’t always have the most full perspective on things,” she said. “I can totally see this priest and this archbishop thinking, ‘What’s the big deal?’”
“He clearly doesn’t see himself in the same light as the majority of us do,” Haselberger said.
In a church bulletin, Fleckenstein announced Nienstedt’s arrival nonchalantly. “[O]ver the next few months I envision times that I will need assistance either for health reasons or that I may complete a couple of major projects for the Diocese in my role as Episcopal Vicar for Education,” Fleckenstein wrote. “Archbishop John Nienstedt, retired Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis/St. Paul will be joining us to assist in various pastoral ministries during this time.”
“He will celebrate some of the weekend and weekday Masses, visit the sick in the hospital, visit the sick and homebound, and celebrate Mass for the nursing home and assisted living facilities.”
Fleckenstein added that he expects Nienstedt, whom he’s known for 20 years, to move on in about six months.
But attorneys who represent alleged victims of priest sex abuse were not so generous in their assessment of the archbishop.
“For him to be ordered to another parish is the same sad story that’s been playing out for 30 years,” attorney Jeff Anderson told The Daily Beast. “It’s something they claim to have turned the page on, but time and time again they’re repeating the same pattern.”
“The entire nation’s Roman Catholic child sexual abuse scandal just moved to Battle Creek,” Patrick Wall, a priest and monk-turned-lawyer, told Michigan Live.
Charges filed by prosecutors allege that while Nienstadt was archbishop, the archdiocese ignored repeated abuse complaints against a priest who was convicted of molesting two boys. The former priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, was sentenced to five years for the abuse, but prosecutors said the archdiocese didn’t act on “numerous and repeated reports of troubling conduct.”
Nienstedt also misrepresented his handling of other cases where priests were accused of sexual impropriety, according to prosecutors. Though he had testified that he was unaware that Kenneth LaVan, a priest accused of assaulting a teenage girl, was still in the ministry, documents later showed he had gotten consistent updates on LaVan’s position and, and even spent time with him socially as friends.
“My leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of His Church and those who perform them,” Nienstedt wrote in a letter of resignation last summer. “I leave 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.”
But Nienstedt also faced allegations of child abuse and sexual misconduct himself. A boy accused Nienstedt of touching his buttocks during a confirmation ceremony at the Cathedral of St. Paul in 2009. The mother later reported the alleged incident to another priest, who alerted police and the archdiocese in 2013. Police declined to pursue charges against Nienstedt, and the archbishop affirmed his commitment to providing “safe environments for all children and youth.”
Another archdiocese investigation into Nienstedt focused on his alleged sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other men. Nienstedt called those allegations false, and “a personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage.”
Andrea Perry, the Youth Ministry Coordinator for St. Philip’s and two nearby Catholic churches, did not return a request for comment.