New Era Dawns for Bishops’ Accountability

The resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche reflect the Vatican’s tougher standards regarding the mishandling of clergy sexual abuse.

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MINNEAPOLIS — The missing piece in the Church’s response to the clergy sexual-abuse crisis, many have argued, has been accountability for bishops who mishandled, covered up or ignored cases of priests who preyed on minors and young people.

But that could be changing, as evidenced by several recent developments that include Pope Francis’ June 10 approval of a new Vatican tribunal to adjudicate cases of negligent bishops — and, most prominently, the June 15 resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Anthony Piche in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which on June 5 was criminally charged as a corporation for allegedly failing to protect minors.

In a June 15 statement on the archdiocesan website, the outgoing archbishop said, “In order to give the archdiocese a new beginning amidst the many challenges we face, I have submitted my resignation as archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis to our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and I have just received word that he has accepted it.”

In closing, he said, “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.”

The same day the Minnesota bishops resigned, the Holy See announced that its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, the laicized archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, will stand trial this July in Vatican City on charges that he sexually abused boys and possessed child pornography while he served in the Caribbean (see story on page 5).

Archbishop Nienstedt’s and Bishop Piché’s resignations followed the April departure of Bishop Robert Finn from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri. Local Catholics had been calling for Bishop Finn’s resignation for more than three years, after his 2012 conviction on a misdemeanor for failing to immediately report a priest who took lewd pictures of young girls.

The American bishops are hardly the first prelates to resign amidst allegations that they mishandled sex-abuse cases. According to, a Massachusetts-based clearing house of sexual-abuse allegations that advocates for victims and reform, Archbishop Nienstedt is the 17th bishop to be removed from office since the pontificate of St. John Paul II amidst complaints related to failing to respond adequately to clergy sexual abuse.


Following Benedict’s Lead

Pope Francis accepted the recent bishops’ resignations under canon-law provisions that allow bishops to resign their office for reasons of serious ill health or other grave causes that compromise their ability to lead, said Kurt Martens, an associate professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America.

“Canonically speaking, we can only say that they submitted their resignation and it was accepted by the Holy Father, for whatever reason that may be,” Martens said.

Philip Lawler, the editor of Catholic world news at, told the Register that Pope Francis, rather than setting a new tone, has been moving forward in the direction set by Pope Benedict XVI on bishop accountability.

“Yes, the Church has taken a decisive and necessary step,” Lawler said. “Other responses to the scandal have been flawed precisely because bishops have not been held accountable.”


Scandal in Minnesota

Public scrutiny had been building in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis since Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer who used to work for the archdiocese, went public in 2012 with her allegations that Archbishop Nienstedt ignored her warnings about Father Curtis Wehmeyer, who was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty in November 2012 to charges of sexual conduct involving minors and possession of child pornography.

Haselberger’s allegations — including accusations that the archdiocese failed to immediately forward concerns or suspected abuse cases to local law enforcement — set off a firestorm of anger and controversy from local Catholics. In October 2013, Archbishop Nienstedt, who succeeded Archbishop Harry Flynn in 2008, said “some serious mistakes” had been made over the previous decade and noted that, under his leadership, the archdiocese had implemented “many policies, procedure and practices” to prevent and address clergy sexual misconduct. The archbishop also instituted additional measures at that time to deal with the issue.

And Haselberger’s revelations also led to the resignation of the archdiocese’s former vicar general, Father Peter Laird, following a September 2013 report on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) that Father Wehmeyer was appointed a pastor despite a documented history of sexual compulsion, including cruising areas known for homosexual encounters and seeking two young men for sex at a bookstore in 2004.

According to MPR, Father Laird was copied on a 2011 memo written by his predecessor, Father Kevin McDonough, who said the parishioners of Father Wehmeyer’s parish did not need to be informed about his sexual proclivities because they did not involve criminal behavior.

Authorities say Father Wehmeyer sexually abused two boys in 2010 while he was pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul, Minn. He also faces charges in Wisconsin for alleged similar behavior involving a third victim during a camping trip in 2011.

On June 5, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi criminally charged the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis with six gross misdemeanors, each carrying a maximum fine of $3,000. No individuals were charged, although the Star Tribune reported June 17 that Ramsey County authorities are investigating personal ties between Archbishop Nienstedt and Father Wehmeyer.


Accountability for Prior Mistakes

Despite apparent missteps taken by the former vicar general — and by implication Archbishop Flynn, since Father McDonough was serving under his episcopal authority at the time — and institutional patterns that predated Archbishop Nienstedt, the reality is that bishops today are becoming increasingly aware that they have full responsibility for actions they take, or fail to take, to address long-standing clergy sex-abuse issues that date back decades.

“I think bishops are being put on notice that simply because something was done before they arrived, that doesn’t mean they have no responsibility to be transparent about what happened or to try to correct the problems that were created before they arrived,” said veteran Vatican journalist John Thavis, Catholic News Service’s former Rome bureau chief.

Thavis added, “I agree that Archbishop Nienstedt inherited a lot of these problems, which go back decades. But on the other hand, had it only been those inherited issues, then perhaps he’d still be in office and wouldn’t have resigned.”

It is also possible that Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Finn could one day find themselves before the new Vatican tribunal. Marie Collins, a clergy sex-abuse survivor who sits on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told The Irish Times on June 12 that the tribunal will deal with retrospective cases of negligent bishops.

The tribunal was proposed by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The tribunal will be established within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops “with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.”

Certain important details still need to be worked out, including how cases will be referred to the tribunal and what the possible penalties may be for negligent bishops who are convicted of abusing their office.


Questions Remain

CUA’s Martens said that while the recent events have communicated the Church’s determination to require substantially greater accountability for all bishops with respect to errors of judgment in addressing clergy sexual abuse, more clarity is still needed.

Said Martens, “It’s a big step forward, but the more difficult question to answer is: What is going to be the standard to hold bishops accountable? When do you judge that someone has not done what he was supposed to do? That’s a very tough question to answer.”

 Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.