On September 25, 2014, the Holy See announced that it had taken the unusual step of removing Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano from his episcopal See of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. The removal followed an apostolic visitation of the diocese and its seminaries. Prior to the removal, the Bishop had been criticized for his support for and promotion of accused priest Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity (click here to read Commonweal Magazine's serial on Urritigoity) as well as undisclosed irregularities in the seminary which Bishop Livieres had established. However, most news reports commented on the fact that the official reason for his removal was to facilitate unity and 'episcopal communion'. In the words of the Wall Street Journal, the actions of Rogelio Livieres created 'strife with other bishops'.

If we take the Vatican at its word, this would suggest that the decision to remove Bishop Livieres resulted from three issues: his support for a priest at risk of committing acts of sexual abuse, irregularities in his methods of forming priests, and his inability to maintain cordial relationships with his brother bishops. Hmmm.... If it weren't for the fact that this was taking place in Paraguay, one might think the Holy See had taken steps to remove Archbishop John Nienstedt.

Back in July, Commonweal Magazine reported that Archbishop Nienstedt had contracted with a Minneapolis law firm, Greene and Espel, to investigate an accusation that he (the Archbishop) had made unwanted sexual advances towards a former priest. During the spring of 2014, I was interviewed by the attorneys assigned to the case, who questioned me about my knowledge of the priest in question as well as other circumstances that led me to conclude that the accusations went beyond what Nienstedt described as
“improper touching (of the person’s neck)”. In the weeks that followed the publication of the Commonweal story, I was contacted by several more seminarians and former seminarians interested in making a report against Archbishop Nienstedt. This only confirmed my belief that the investigation had produced ten or more sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety on the part of the archbishop dating from his time as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as Bishop of New Ulm, and while coadjutor and archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and that he also stands accused of retaliating against those who refused his advances or otherwise questioned his conduct. Most significantly, the investigation also looked into whether the Archbishop's personal relationship with Father Curtis Wehmeyer clouded his judgement and prevented him from taking necessary action to prevent and/or respond to Wehmeyer's acts of sexual abuse of minors.

The allegations of inappropriate interactions with seminarians in Detroit and the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis uncovered by the Greene and Espel investigation are particularly troubling when one considers the impact this could have on the evaluation and formation of future priests (for a very thorough look at Nienstedt's time in Detroit, please see the google site John Clayton Nienstedt, Jr). One of the criticisms aimed at
Bishop Livieres was that he reduced the program for priestly formation in his diocesan seminary from the traditional six years to four. Surely the possibility that an Archbishop or seminary rector required or appeared to require acquiescence to sexual overtures would be at least as problematic? And, given that Archbishop Nienstedt was the principal architect of the Program for Priestly Formation currently in use across the United States, such a possibility ought to warrant timely investigation and intervention.

So far, I hope I have suggested that there are sufficient grounds for an Apostolic Visitation or similar inquiry of Archbishop Nienstedt on two of three grounds tied to the removal of Bishop Livieres. Yet,
the Archbishop's supporters might point out that there has been nothing written recently about Archbishop Nienstedt causing strife amongst bishops, and they would be right. However, they would also be overlooking the fact that Bishop Nienstedt was the architect of what remains perhaps the strangest conflict between bishops on record: Bishop Nienstedt's quarrel with his deceased predecessor, Bishop Raymond Lucker, whom Nienstedt accused of posthumous interference with his administration of the Diocese of New Ulm. This quarrel involved not only the two bishops of New Ulm, but also the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine (of which Nienstedt is now Chair), an unnamed censor, and a handful of theologians from the University of Saint Thomas and my alma mater, the College of Saint Catherine (now Saint Catherine University).  Although the unnamed censor did not find 'grave problems' with the text in question, Revelation and the Catholic Church: Vatican II in the Twenty First Century, Bishop Nienstedt continued to denounce the views of his predecessor and urged Catholics not to read the book (a sure way to inflate book sales). Those closely following the Synod on the Family might be interested in Lucker's introduction to the book, in which he wrote of 'changing formulations of church teaching', and reaching doctrinal consensus following 'free discussion' and some factions 'kicking and screaming'. 

In an NCR piece on the controversy, author Robert McClory spoke with many priests and laity of New Ulm, though few were willing to speak on record. Nonetheless, McClory reported that they experienced Nienstedt as a 'top-down micromanager', 'a scolder', and someone who at times seems to 'enjoy being mean'. This was my experience as well, and during my time as Chancellor I would frequently come across memos and other documents suggesting that Archbishop Nienstedt used the same tone towards Archbishop Flynn and Bishop Pates. And, it is generally known that Nienstedt was barely on speaking terms with Archbishop Flynn in the weeks and months leading up to the latter's retirement (hence the quantity of memos...), and point blank instructed Bishop Pates not to attend the funeral of one of Nienstedt's parents.

It is not uncommon for me to receive emails from Catholics saying that they are leaving the Catholic Church because of the revelations that have appeared over the past year. This alone would seem to warrant an investigation into what has occurred and
is still occurring. However, if such arguments are not sufficient, hopefully the similarities between what is being leveled against Archbishop Nienstedt and what led to the removal of the former bishop of Ciudad del Este


 


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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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