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Twin Cities archbishop's deposition reveals flaws, oversights in abuse policies

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Shortly after becoming coadjutor archbishop of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese in 2007, John Nienstedt held a meeting with core staff officials to discuss the state of safe environments in the archdiocese.

During that two-hour meeting, "it didn't occur to me," the now-archbishop said in a deposition released Tuesday, to ask for a copy of the John Jay list -- those priests the archdiocese listed as credibly accused in the 2004 John Jay College of Criminal Justice study on clergy sex abuse.

Nor did it occur to Nienstedt to document the names of priests currently enrolled in a monitoring program or to record any of the discussion among his delegate for safe environment, Fr. Kevin McDonough; his chancellors for civil and canonical affairs; and him.

"It was verbal," the archbishop said.

Non-documentation would become an occasional norm for him and McDonough when discussing sensitive matters, Nienstedt said.

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Through 200-plus pages of testimony, Nienstedt, who described himself as a hands-on manager, instead frequently appears as a leader unaware of information concerning abuse, who at times failed to follow up on child-protecting protocols, and who saw no need to discipline his staff or priests for their handling of abuse allegations.

The deposition, taken April 2, came as part of the case of "John Doe 1" versus the archdiocese, the Winona, Minn., diocese and offending priest Thomas Adamson. Jeff Anderson, who is representing John Doe 1, used the four hours not to specifically address that case, but instead question Nienstedt about other priests and archdiocesan policies related to abuse.

Both Anderson and the archdiocese posted the deposition on their respective websites. The archdiocese also included the full video testimony, broken into three parts. Anderson and the archdiocese released Thursday the deposition of McDonough.

At a news conference Tuesday, Anderson said while Nienstedt and his predecessors have promised zero tolerance on the sexual abuse of minors, "there has been an ongoing tolerance of sexual predators in the clerical culture of the archdiocese."

Asked during the deposition to evaluate his fulfillment of his promise to provide safe environments for children, Nienstedt could only identify a single oversight during his time as archbishop.

"The only mistakes that I know for sure I made was not removing the faculties from Father [Kenneth] Lavan, but I didn't know that that was happening at the time. Once I learned it, I -- I acted," he said.

A review of clergy files by an outside consulting firm discovered Lavan, 81, had credible claims of sexual abuse against him and though retired, periodically celebrated Mass. The archdiocese permanently removed him from public ministry in December.

But five months before the deposition, Nienstedt appeared more open to acknowledging faults.

"There must be a humble and contrite recognition of specific mistakes that have been made, and definitive steps taken to repair the damage and rebuild for the future. Our actions must reflect our words," the archbishop said in a Nov. 10 letter to archdiocesan clergy.

Anderson also asked Nienstedt to assess his staff's record:

Q. Have you at any time reprimanded, punished, demoted or taken any disciplinary action against any priest or official of the archdiocese for their mishandling of child sexual abuse allegations?

A. I don't believe so, no.

Q. Do you believe you should have?

A. No.

Q. Do you believe there are any priests in the archdiocese or officials in the archdiocese that have mishandled childhood sexual abuse [since your installation]?

A. No. I don't believe so.

The deposition, however, revealed numerous instances where Nienstedt himself acknowledged a need for a different course of action.

In the much-publicized case of Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer, convicted in 2012 of criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography, Nienstedt said in hindsight it was a mistake to send McDonough, the delegate for safe environment, and Deacon John Vomastek to Wehmeyer's parish, Blessed Sacrament Parish, before reporting an allegation to police. He added that Fr. John Paul Erickson -- who first received the allegation from the mother, not in the context of confession but of spiritual direction -- "should have taken [the allegation] to the police himself once he had clarified the context of which the communication had taken place."

In addition, he said he was unaware that the archdiocese had interviewed the boy Wehmeyer abused and of a meeting among his vicar general and chancellors of canonical and civil affairs discussing the allegations a day before the archdiocese officially reported the abuse.

After Wehmeyer was arrested for drunken driving in 2009, Nienstedt said he met with the priest four times to discuss anger management and mismanagement issues with his parish. Nienstedt said he never reviewed the DUI police report, which stated Wehmeyer had attempted to pick up teens to accompany him back to a campground party.

Asked later if he had ever personally reviewed a priest's full file in order to make a decision, Nienstedt replied, "I don't recall that I have."

The lack of review and reliance upon advisers' assessments also became apparent in 2012 as the archdiocesan staff debated what constituted child pornography. While reviewing the file of Fr. Jonathan Shelley ahead of an assignment, Jennifer Haselberger, at the time the chancellor for canonical affairs, discovered a report from 2004 that said the priest possessed a computer with thousands of pornographic images.

The file also contained a report from a private investigator hired by the archdiocese, who concluded that some of the images "could be considered borderline illegal, because of the youthful looking male image." Haselberger pressed that they follow up on the report, at one point showing several of the images to the archbishop and others at the chancery.

"I could not tell whether they were adolescents or older," Nienstedt testified.

Despite his uncertainty, he ruled against turning over the computer and files to police, saying that the St. Paul police reviewed them in 2004 and found no child pornography. Still, he testified that he never personally reviewed Shelley's file to see if anyone had filed such a report, instead assuming "with reasonable certitude" that McDonough had done so.

Asked if there's a record that demonstrates the report was made, Nienstedt said, "I did not see a receipt, no. I was told that there was one and I had no reason not to believe it."

Later in the deposition, Nienstedt retracted that position, clarifying that the file was not given to St. Paul police but a retired police officer for review. An investigation by a county prosecutor concluded in January that none of the pornographic files met the statutory definition of what constitutes child pornography.

In October, the archdiocese compiled for the first time a list of credibly accused priests, and made it public in December. Nienstedt testified it was the first time he thought to do so or saw such a list. The decision to disclose, he said, came "in an attempt to be transparent with our publics, with the Catholics in the pew, because the media had made such a big deal out of the John Jay list."

Asked if he made the choice to keep the list secret, the archbishop replied, "It already had been kept secret and I didn't see any reason to disclose."

[Brian Roewe is a NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 9-22, 2014 print issue under the headline: Church officials defend abuse record .

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