On June 15 Minnesota Archbishop John Nienstedt and his deputy, Bishop Lee Piché, resigned from their positions days after the county attorney filed criminal charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children from sexual abuse.
Nienstedt may personally be linked to the scandal: In 2014 he first ordered, and then blocked, an internal investigation of his private life. His resignation, which came after years of his insistence that he would not resign, was announced, but not explained. It highlights the bigger issues that are dogging the Catholic Church on every continent. Nienstedt’s resignation also underscores the struggle between progressives and conservatives over abuse of authority by bishops and the Vatican and, ultimately, over the direction the church will take under Pope Francis.
The fallout within the Minneapolis-St. Paul archdiocese is not surprising. Years of clergy sex abuse scandals have led to bankruptcy and the departure of many Catholics from the church. In fact, the abuses that led to Nienstedt's resignation were first reported more than 30 years ago. Public concern escalated in 2013 as Minnesota Public Radio published an investigative series based on new evidence disclosed by diocesan canon lawyer and whistleblower, Jennifer Haselberger. The MPR reports, which documented sexual abuse of children by priests and the failure of three archbishops to respond over 30 years time, catapulted the archdiocese into a national spotlight.
The new revelations outraged Catholics across the state and nation. They already knew about the sex abuse by priests, with reports starting at least in the 1970s, but the extent of abuse and cover-ups had never been disclosed. For example, archbishops failed to report crimes to police, transferred pedophile priests from parish to parish, and sometimes arranged early retirement and special payments to the accused priests.
Still, the Minnesota archdiocese is not alone. From Australia to Poland to Chile, virtually every Catholic diocese has been smirched by clergy sex abuse scandal. Pope Francis took office in 2013. In 2014, he established the Commission for the Protection of Minors, which reports directly to him. This summer, as that commission began to get up to speed, he approved the creation of yet another tribunal to judge bishops accused of failing to act to protect victims of clerical sex abuse.
Some critics have dismissed the tribunal as smoke and mirrors, since it only requires reporting clerical abuse to church authorities, not to local police or civil authorities. Their concerns are valid. For example, in 2012 Missouri Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of failing to report allegations of child abuse to police. But the Vatican allowed Finn to stay on as a bishop for two and a half years after his conviction. Finn finally resigned in April, perhaps forced, or at least strongly encouraged, by Vatican officials.
The tribunal’s limited mandate raises concern about the Vatican’s willingness to truly discipline bishops for abuse of authority and the church’s resistance in responding to members’ concerns. In fact, while the resignations and the creation of the tribunal may signal change, there is evidence to the contrary. In March Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, who has been accused of covering up sexual abuse by a priest, was installed as bishop of Osorno, Chile, amid public protests and appeals to the Vatican.
Questions about the exercise of authority within the church go far deeper than the sex abuse scandals. Nienstedt was one of the bishops appointed in a swing back to traditional and conservative Catholicism under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Nienstedt has defended conventional church teachings that condemn abortion and homosexuality, has supported clerical authority and has rigidly restricted the roles of women and lay people in the church.
In his first posting as bishop in 2001, Nienstedt succeeded the popular and progressive Bishop Raymond Lucker in Minnesota's New Ulm diocese. Lucker, who represented the liberalization that began with Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, emphasized an inclusive church. He urged the church to ordain women and allow priests to marry, advocated for the lifting of church prohibitions on birth control and named nuns as administrators of parishes that lacked priests. Nienstedt condemned these views and reversed many of the changes instituted by his predecessor.
Nienstedt moved from New Ulm to Minneapolis-St. Paul, becoming archbishop in 2008. As archbishop, his style was authoritarian and he took conservative stances on internal church policies and political issues such as stem-cell research. He ran an unsuccessful but expensive and unpopular campaign against same-sex marriage in Minnesota, limited LGBT participation in the church, and said the devil was behind “sodomy, abortion, contraception, pornography, the redefinition of marriage and the denial of objective truth.” At the same time, he embraced some social justice issues, backing federal immigration reform and advocating for a state budget as a moral document in which “the needs of the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed and the disabled must be of primary importance.”
Nienstedt’s stormy term as archbishop ended because of sexual scandals, but what happens next will reveal much about the future of the church. For one, the action — or inaction — of the new Vatican tribunal on Nienstedt’s failures will say much about its efficacy and the pope’s commitment to protecting children and holding bishops accountable.
The Catholic Church is at a historic crossroads. Pope Francis’ selection of new bishops will reveal whether he is leading the church along the same conservative path as his immediate predecessors, or whether his strong support for social and environmental issues signals a return to the more progressive church of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.