Or so saith Woody Allen.

Interestingly, it was this quote (and in fact the whole 'trial scene' from 'Bananas') that came to my mind earlier this weekend after a priest emailed me a question. Perhaps surprisingly, the question was not about the 'investigation' into Archbishop Nienstedt (although the quote would certainly be apt). Instead, the question that was posed was this: 'Why do you think Nienstedt appointed [Father Peter] Laird as Vicar General?'

I remember my colleagues and I asking the same question in November of 2009, when it was announced that Laird would be taking over for [Bishop] Paul Sirba, who had been just appointed Bishop of Duluth. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I initially greeted Father Laird's appointment with a cautious optimism, although that didn't last for long. I suspect that the same was true for Archbishop Nienstedt.

Obviously, the Archbishop never unburdened himself to me as to what motivated his choice, nor am I aware of him doing so with anyone else. However, I can provide a context with which to understand the appointment, as well as to understand what would eventually transpire. I also know for a fact that Father Laird did not enjoy the level of confidence that he (and others) probably thought he did. As the person who prepared the Archbishop's list of three (canon 413, 1), I can assure you that Father Laird was never high on that list. 

In fairness to the Archbishop, it is important to note that Father Laird was also not his first choice to serve as Vicar General. Incredibly unpopular from the moment his appointment was announced, Nienstedt, as coadjutor, would watch as the ship in Saint Paul was scuttled before he could take command. Auxiliary Bishop Pates was transferred to Des Moines in the month prior to Archbishop Flynn's retirement, and influential and well-respected priests like Bishop Peter Christensen and Bishop John LeVoir were named to lead dioceses of their own. Even lay staff members such as my predecessor and the long-time Schools staffer and Superintendent Lori Glynn would take the opportunity to depart.  

The scuttle-like situation was compounded by an absence of any type of Archdiocesan succession plan and an abysmal lack of bench strength for key roles. Whereas most dioceses of the size and [formerly] fiscal strength of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis engaged in a constant process of developing and mentoring staff and clergy to fulfill required roles, that process in Saint Paul had effectively come to an end following the succession of Father Kevin McDonough as Vicar General/Moderator of the Curia. While McDonough (and Bishops Pates, Carlson, and Kinney before him) had been carefully formed for those roles under the direction of Archbishop Roach (sent to study canon law in Rome and then serving as Vice Chancellor, Episcopal Vicar, Chancellor, and pastor before his appointment as second in command), there was no similar emphasis on formation following McDonough's appointment and that of Father Joseph Wajda as Judicial Vicar. Instead, clergy (and sometimes lay staff) were thrust into roles for which they were unprepared and at which they were exceedingly unlikely to succeed. In hockey terms, when it came to choosing who to send out on the ice, Nienstedt didn't have the option of rolling four lines. He had trouble fielding a complete first line. 

Having said that, many people were pleased with the initial appointment of Father [Bishop] Lee Piche, who was an experienced pastor with a soft touch that seemed to provide a necessary contrast to the Archbishop's gruff style. The lack of Chancery experience was problematic, but probably seen as an asset by the Archbishop, who wasn't interested in sharing his responsibilities beyond ceremonial events and those meetings where his presence was not welcome (e.g. the Board of Trustees for the University of Saint Thomas).

Hence the Archbishop must have felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under him, when, barely a year after taking over from McDonough, Bishop Piche's assignment as Vicar General and Moderator was negated by his appointment as auxiliary bishop. In case you don't think this appointment surprised the Archbishop, consider that less than two weeks prior to the announcement, the Archbishop had me draft a letter to the Secretary of State requesting the Holy Father's congratulations to then-Father Piche on his 25th anniversary of priestly ordination (a recognition rendered superfluous in light of the papal bull appointing him auxiliary). And, the Archbishop's frustration with this turn of events was evident in his refusal to alter his previous July vacation itinerary, meaning that Piche's episcopal ordination took place so quickly following the announcement of the appointment that the ink was still wet on the parchment.

It must have pained the Archbishop (who upon appointment as co-adjutor stated that one of his priorities was recruitment to the priesthood) to have to 'steal' from the seminary in order to fill the Chancery position vacated by Piche. But, as much as it hurt the Archbishop, it must have hurt Bishop Sirba more. Still, whatever reluctance he had towards accepting the appointment, Sirba did the job diligently and (I continue to believe this) to the best of his ability. A former spiritual director and Director of Spiritual Formation, his background was of little assistance to him in navigating the abyss of external forum violations of clerical celibacy. Moreover, he lacked the education and the experience gained from lesser Chancery roles, both things that had been considered essential in his predecessors before Piche.

My colleagues and I thought Sirba's administration promising, but incredibly short lived. For, Sirba served less than six months before he was named Bishop of Duluth. Again, the Archbishop was taken by surprise by the appointment, so much so that I remember him saying that when he received the call from Archbishop Sambi, the Apostolic Nuncio, he struggled to identify the man Sambi was telling him had been appointed (this was likely in part because of Sambi's notable accent when speaking English...).

So, for the third time in little more than a year, the Archbishop had to go looking for someone to serve as his second in command. Again, I can't tell you the mental process he used when landing upon Father Laird (Father Laird is from an influential family that is heavily engaged in the administration of the Archdiocese, he is skilled at cultivating wealthy donors, and had already been appointed Co-Chair of the Strategic Planning Task Force and Secretary to the College of Consultors), but I can tell you what external process he did not use- he didn't review his personnel file. This is probably the most inexcusable of administrative oversights, given that the file clearly identified Father Laird as a member of the 'transitional presbyterate' (clergy who view their priestly ordination as a mere stepping stone to the episcopacy), who had never served as a pastor, and who formation staff seemed to believe would not survive in ministry should his academic or episcopal ambitions be thwarted. [I know this because I was asked, in my role as Chancellor, to review Laird's file and report to the Nuncio upon it as part of the selection process for bishops. Unfortunately, I was unable to complete this task because Father Laird's suspension of my employment coincided with the time period given for providing the information. An amazing coincidence, I am sure]. 

Speaking of the appointment of bishops, in the case of Father Laird, I suspect that his appointment (had it occurred) would have been of no surprise to Archbishop Nienstedt. Rather, I suspect that such an appointment would have seemed to the Archbishop as the easiest way to end the ongoing power struggle between Archbishop and Vicar General. But, the lack of bench strength and succession plan remained an issue and became more of one as (in my opinion) Father Laird attempted to undermine potential rivals as he perceived his grasp on power to be waning (his failure to appoint Father Ralph Talbot to the Sexual Misconduct Task Force in the spring of 2013 is an obvious example of this). 

Laird's administration was frustrating and problematic (the full extent to which he is responsible for the current crisis has not yet been revealed), but it was really a symptom of a much larger problem with the overall functioning of the Archdiocese. There is simply no excuse or justification for an organization such as the Archdiocesan Central Corporation, in an archdiocese of this size and prominence, to fail to prepare priests to fulfill these essential roles. Such appointments should be the result of careful planning and preparation, rather than haphazard reactions to chains of events. 

There should also be careful attention given to the character of the men selected. In my experience, which unlike my former colleagues is based on experiences in other dioceses and archdioceses, I have come to realize that there are three essential characteristics necessary in priests who would serve as Vicar Generals and Moderators of the Curia, and these three characteristics are in addition to the aforementioned education and experience. Since it seems likely that there will be a new Vicar General appointed in the coming year, I will list them here in an attempt to be helpful.

1) The ability to apply problem-solving techniques to issues both large and small. 

When one considers the simple size of the task that falls upon someone when appointed Vicar General (countless Board memberships, as well as the role of COO, clergy disciplinarian, and pastoral minister), it is easy to see how someone could prioritize tasks in terms of what appears 'big' and what appears 'small'. Yet, a good candidate recognizes that 'big' or 'small' is simply a matter of perspective. The best example I saw of this was Bishop Kagan (then Monsignor Kagan), who I met while he was still serving as Vicar General of the Diocese of Rockford. I was visiting him at the 'Chancery' in Rockford after he had been Vicar General for more than ten years, and my visit was prompted by a penal process taking place involving a priest who had served briefly in that diocese. I took the elevator to Monsignor Kagan's office in the company of a dog, who followed me all the way in to the office. Kagan explained to me that he had 'adopted' the dog, after careful research and consideration, to resolve the problem of the geese that populated the Chancery lawn, and which were a menace to employees and visitors. His responses to my more tawdry questions demonstrated the same consideration and thoughtfulness, but it was the dog that impressed me. A less suitable Vicar General would have dismissed the 'geese issue' as being beneath his concern, or would have okayed the hire of a firm to poison the birds without considering all of the ramifications. Such things are disasters for employee morale, as anyone who has been near the Chancery in Saint Paul is well aware.

2). A strong sense of self

For most people, it is not easy to accept that they are not in control, and this is even more true for people who find themselves so close to power they can taste it. To serve effectively as a Vicar General, however, it is essential that a man be able to say 'as you wish it, so it shall be done', and to say it several times each hour. It helps, of course, if the man has faith in the one who is issuing orders, but our Catholic ecclesiology demands it even when that faith is lacking. And for that, a man must have a very clear sense of self, and an ability to see his role in the larger picture. He must also be able to set personal ambition aside. It is not helpful (to himself, or to the Church) if what the man says most often is 'when I get my diocese, things will be different'.

Whenever I reflect on this, I think of Monsignor Brian Donahue, who left his position as Vicar General to serve as a military chaplain, returned to the diocese and then returned to the Army again with the blessing of his bishop. Feeling compelled to return to Iraq with his former unit, who otherwise would be without a Catholic chaplain, he submitted the decision to the prayerful consideration of his bishop, whom he knew had to consider foremost the welfare of his diocese. 

3). A clear sense of his ministry

In order to serve well in the role of Vicar General, a priest also has to have a very clear sense of what he was ordained to do. Those who have this hate the job of Vicar General, and count the days, and hours and minutes, until their term is up, their successor appointed,and they can return to full time ministry to the people of God. 

Careerists make bad Vicars General for two reasons. First, they find it difficult to remember that they are not in charge. Second, their desire to hold on to the job, or to advance from it, often prevents them from doing what it is that is required of them. For, a Vicar General must be willing and able to give honest, thoughtful advice to his bishop whether that bishop wants to hear it or not, and then faithfully implement whatever decision is made, even if contrary to his advice. This is much easier if the threatened punishment for failing to do so- usually the implied threat of banishment to a parish in the hinterlands- is no threat at all. When a Vicar General dreads, more than anything, being sent to minister in a parish, well that, as they say, is 'a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of two mockeries of a sham', and no good can come fr




Joe Jung
01/07/2015 7:26pm

Well presented. Woody Allen is the perfect commentator on the absurd events which have transpired, and which will undoubtedly continue. I hope you have begun an outline for a book.

I have a question: Do you believe that priests have a greater disposition towards sexual misadventure than the general population?

Please continue to share your insights.

If I might digress, Woody also said: "I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics." ( Manhattan)

Richard Waterfield
01/16/2015 3:21pm

This explains so much. Not enough bench strength. Not enough effort to develop it. Climbing out of this hole will not be quick. Even though there are good folks (priests and lay) available, will they be able to step in and be effective?

Comments are closed.


    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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