On Monday, attorney Jeff Anderson released more than 800 pages of internal documents showing how the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis handled the case of Father Gil Gustafson, who in 1983 pleaded guilty to third degree criminal sexual conduct involving a minor. This story had been reported extensively over the past year, and even in the weeks leading up to the document release. Nonetheless, the release quickly became newsworthy because many of the documents seemed to call into question statements made under oath by Archbishop Nienstedt during his deposition in April of 2014

The relevant testimony begins on page 64 of the deposition transcript, when plaintiff's attorneys question the Archbishop about when he first became aware of Father Gustafson's criminal conviction. Nienstedt replies, 'I think during the- the last six months'. When I read this reply in April of 2014, I knew immediately that the statement was incorrect. The Archbishop himself acknowledges that Gustafson was enrolled in the archdiocesaan monitoring program, meaning that he received yearly reports on Gustafson's compliance and the reasons for which he was being monitored. I also was aware of correspondence with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and various lists that had been assembled by myself and others which listed Gustafson, his status, and his history. In other words, the Archbishop was aware of Father Gustafson's conviction long before the Kinsale file review, and in fact had acknowledged being apprised of it in 2010, if not before (see documents with Bates stamp ARCH-ES1-0000503, ARCH-ES1-0000504, and ARCH-048866).

However, when I received an email yesterday morning from a noted Catholic journalist asking me for my thoughts on the document release/ questionable testimony, and specifically asking if I had 'thought much
about  how, or why, the propensity to lie is so common among bishops', my immediate response was to dispute that the Archbishop's testimony on Gustafson should be added to this category. Obviously, on previous occasions I have stated my opinion that the Archbishop has been untruthful in some of the statements he has made, and I continue to maintain that position. Yet, in this instance I don't believe that to be the case.

A lie is generally understood to be a false statement made with the deliberate intention to deceive. Likewise, the crimes of both perjury and false swearing require that the action in question be willful. In other words, the person making the statement has to be aware that the statement is false. It is not outrageous to assume that Archbishop Nienstedt would recall when he first learned that one of his priest's had done jail time for sexual abuse of a minor. Facts such as those are the type that become easily imprinted in a person's memory. But, it is a leap to suggest that he would intentionally lie about that fact, especially given that the Archdiocese was at that time in the process of producing thousands of documents that would demonstrate that his statement was untrue. To willfully deceive at such a moment would be an act of enormous stupidity, and I have never believed that the Archbishop is a stupid man. Instead, I think the inconsistency evident in the Archbishop's testimony regarding Father Gustafson is indicative of an entirely different problem. 

During the nearly five years that I worked for Archbishop Nienstedt, at least once a week, and often more, I would review all of the previous week's correspondence, setting aside letters, memos, and other documents that required action. By and large the letters would have already been sent (although we did sift through the mail bins on occasion) and the memos distributed. The reason that further action was required was because of the contents. As many priests can attest, it was not unheard of that two or sometimes even three letters would be sent by the Archbishop in response to a single request, all with different determinations. Likewise, a letter may have been sent even though a different response had already been received, perhaps even through a face-to-face meeting with the Archbishop. In other cases, staff would be instructed to perform a certain action, even though they knew (or thought they knew) that the Archbishop had previously provided different direction which had already been completed. Anyone who has ever worked closely with Archbishop Nienstedt is familiar with this phenomena, which causes a great deal of stress and frustration for staff and others. Simply put, it was my experience that the Archbishop had extremely poor recollection of his acts of administration. His failing to remember that he approved Gustafson's monitoring provisions on an annual basis is, to my mind, simply another example of this.

Those of you who are aware that I worked in the Diocese of Fargo after the death of Bishop Sullivan will understand why I was so observant of these memory lapses on the part of Archbishop Nienstedt. However, I saw little else to indicate that the Archbishop suffered from the same affliction. Instead, I attributed his failure to recall certain actions, decisions, and information to a below average ability to remember what has been written or read, and I accepted his explanation that this was because of the high volume of letters he received and responded to, coupled with the stress of his position. In other words, as was the case with so many of the peculiarities of the Archbishop, we as a staff identified the problem, and did what we could to cope.

Or so we thought. 

As the events of the past year unfolded, I have had to reconsider my interactions with and opinions of the Archbishop, and I have gone through the painful process of identifying and naming many of these closely held ideas as what they truly were: attempts on my part to justify, overlook, or excuse certain behavior so that I could continue to believe in him, and therefore continue to believe in the Church that appointed him. Over the past year I have been questioned countless times about the Archbishop, his work method, and his behavior. Apparently my experiences are considered to be of particular interest not just because of my resignation and decision to make public what I knew, but because prior to that my work load was such that I was often better acquainted with what was taking place than others, not to mention the fact that I was often the only other person in the building with the Archbishop when he was working during the evenings and on weekends. Time and time again I have been asked the question 'was he drinking at the time?', or 'did he seem like he was drinking at the time?', or 'had he been anywhere prior to that where he may have been drinking?', and it was only this, along with the information I received from others who had also been interviewed, that led me to research the effects that high doses of alcohol can have on semantic and episodic memory. 

I doubt we will ever know for certain if the Archbishop willfully made false statements about his knowledge of Father Gustafson, just as I doubt we will ever be informed of the cause of the memory issues that I observed. Regardless, the disclosure of such information highlights not only the problems in the Archdiocese's response to allegations of sexual abuse, but also serious issues with his administration of the Archdiocese. Once again, we have been shown proof of the need for a change in leadership. I can only hope and pray that such a change will come before more inconsistencies come to light and cause further embarrassment and shame for the Church.   


   


 


Comments

Grefg Coulter
11/04/2014 7:24am

I would encourage you to remain confident, knowing that the Holy Spirit is guiding and sustaining the Church. It is indeed a mystery why God should have left the work of evangelization in the hands of fallible and sometimes vicious individuals--including some priests, religious and bishops. [God also left the education of children in the hands of fallible and sometimes vicious parents.] We know human nature is broken by sin. But, we also know the promise of Christ that the Holy Spirit will be with us. It is our faith.


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    Author

    Jennifer Haselberger is a canon lawyer who served as the Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis until April of 2013, when she resigned in protest of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual misconduct by clergy.

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