This morning, the following letter was sent by the pastor of Saint Philip of Battle Creek, Reverend John Fleckenstein, and reprinted by the Battle Creek Enquirer. Many will no doubt see this as a victory, but I am less sanguine. First, because it raises the question of where he will go next (most likely back to Saint Paul), and also because there is a certain inconsistency in terms of our expectations. We object vociferously to Nienstedt being given a new appointment in the Church, but he was far from the only Church employee, or even the only priest, to be soundly criticized in the Ramsey County petition and charging documents. Yet, with the exception of Bishop Piche, most of those individuals are still in their jobs, with little concern expressed about their fitness or the danger they pose to children. This situation deserves our attention as well.
The Battle Creek Enquirer is reporting that Archbishop Nienstedt spoke with parishioners of St Philip parish in Battle Creek this weekend about the concerns over his appointment.
According to the January 17, 2016, article, Nienstedt blamed the furor over his appointment on critics who dislike his stance on same-sex marriage. In addition, he said that his resignation was not the result of anything that he had done wrong. The Enquirer reports that Nienstedt stated, "I resigned as archbishop in order for the local church to have a new beginning as they come out of bankruptcy and not because of something I had done wrong."
Unfortunately, this is probably true. Archbishop Nienstedt would be the only person who would truly know what motivated his resignation. However, the reason that it was accepted by Pope Francis could be entirely different, which again demonstrates the point of why these resignations, as opposed to punitive actions, are insufficient.
In response to the intense media interest in Archbishop Nienstedt's temporary gig at St Philip Parish in Battle Creek, Michigan, the Diocese of Kalamazoo sent the following letter to parents of children attending the school where Nienstedt is currently residing (https://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/295728468?access_key=key-dXm2TYYtIvg9SzzG2Lhe&allow_share=true&escape=false&view_mode=scroll).
If the Diocese hoped this would calm the furor or assuage concerns, it would appear it was mistaken. I found this response, published in the Battle Creek Enquirer, particularly on point.
Finally, I am intrigued by the 'additional assurances' received by the Diocese regarding Archbishop Nienstedt's fitness for ministry. Of most interest in this regard would be, of course, the report or reports of Greene and Espel. However, the Archdiocese has strenuously upheld (in court and elsewhere) that any work product of that investigation is privileged communication. If those reports were shared with the Diocese of Kalamazoo, that privilege may effectively have been waived.
According to the January 10, 2016 bulletin of Saint Philip Roman Catholic Church in Battle Creek, Michigan, Archbishop Nienstedt has found a job serving as an assistant priest at the parish, which is located in the Diocese of Kalamazoo.
Per the Pastor's Column (see below, page two), Nienstedt will have an office at the parish center, but will be living at the neighboring Church of Saint Joseph. His duties will include covering masses in the absence of the pastor, visiting the sick and homebound, and assisting with 'various pastoral ministries'. TH
Apropos of my previous column suggesting some reasons for releasing the Greene Espel report, the article notes that Archbishop Nienstedt's connection with the pastor dates back to when he (Nienstedt) was assigned to the Shrine of the Little Flower. This time period was of particular interest to the G&E investigators, as at least one of the complaints uncovered dated to this period.
It was in July of 2014 that Commonweal Magazine broke the story that Archbishop John Nienstedt had authorized an investigation into his own conduct as a result of complaints received from priests, former priests, and seminarians. That investigation was entrusted to, and then removed from, a team of attorneys from the Greene Espel law firm in Minneapolis. While the results of the investigation have never been made public, what is known is that at least one matter under investigation was the emeritus Archbishop's relationship with Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis currently serving prison sentence for sexually abusing minors.
The scandalous nature of the investigation's findings can be deduced by how strenuously the Archdiocese has fought to keep those findings secret- even from the prosecutors who have charged the Archdiocese criminally. Priests, lay people, and the general public have all called upon the Archdiocese to release the report, but even after Nienstedt's resignation no action has been taken. Instead the Archdiocese has demurred, indicating that releasing the report would only embarrass the Church, those who made complaints, and would serve no purpose but to 'out' Archbishop Nienstedt.
However, now there may be a more pressing reason to release the report. Rumors are flying that at long last Nienstedt will be moving out of the Summit Avenue Residence (likely in preparation for the sale of the building), and taking up residence at a rectory somewhere in the Archdiocese. This could put the Archbishop in close proximity to priests, seminarians, and parish staff, not to mention school children and minors affiliated with the hosting parish or neighborhood. Given the concerns that have been raised about his conduct (including his conduct towards minor males while on World Youth Day trips), disclosures regarding the risks associated with his residency seem to be necessary.
Necessary, but unlikely to occur. Historically, the Archdiocese has fallen short in its disclosures when the consequence could be embarrassment to itself or the priest, and this case is seemingly no different. Then again, perhaps this will provide the perfect test of the extent to which the Archdiocese really intends to comply with its court-ordered efforts to improve its safe environment efforts. We shall see.
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.