20 Jan 2016

Locals outraged after a Catholic archbishop from Minnesota "embroiled in one of the ugliest clergy sex scandals in the country" relocates to serve at a church in Michigan

A pastor was sick. Another priest was available.
When Archbishop John Nienstedt celebrated three Masses at St. Philip Catholic Church this weekend, he was merely helping out his old friend Fr. John Fleckenstein, who is ill. He plans to continue to help as needed for about a six months.
In the eyes of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, it's just a matter of old friends who made an arrangement between themselves in a way that does not violate any rule of the Diocese, a spokesperson said.
Nienstedt may have passed muster with church leaders. But many parents, community members and former victims of sexual abuse are angered by the arrival of the archbishop who is embroiled in one of the ugliest clergy sex scandals in the country, at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Nienstedt and his high-ranking clergy were accused of repeatedly ignoring warnings, for years, about sexually abusive priests, and of failing to contact law enforcement to report possible criminal acts they knew about.
"The entire nation's Roman Catholic child sexual abuse scandal just moved to Battle Creek," said former Catholic priest and monk Patrick Wall, now a Minnesota attorney, about the decision to allow Nienstedt to fill in as a temporary volunteer priest here.
Wall's law firm has represented hundreds of victims of child sexual abuse crimes by priests in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, he said. The archdiocese is among the first in the nation charged in court with failing to protect its children.
"By John C. Nienstedt not stopping and reporting the perpetrators he was aware of ... he negates everything the Church stands for," Wall said. "Are not the same issues which caused him to resign as Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis the same issues to be reviewed for fitness to minister in Battle Creek?" 
Welcome to Battle Creek
When Nienstedt was introduced via a blurb in St. Philip church bulletin last week, his resume and history of friendship with Fleckenstein extended back to his old days in Detroit. But the introduction was devoid of any mention of the Minnesota scandal.
This week, those attending Mass in Battle Creek either heard from him from the pulpit, or read in a packet handed out after Mass, Nienstedt's characterization of media reports as "misinformation," and "false allegations made made over two years ago that have again resurfaced."
He said in the letter to parishioners that he has not been sued, nor have any legal charges been made against him, and that he resigned as archbishop in Minneapolis and St. Paul "in order for that local church to have a new beginning, not because I had done anything wrong."
But the New York Times editorial board wrote in July 2014:
"When Pope Francis met earlier this month with victims of rape and sexual abuse by priests, he vowed to hold bishops accountable for covering up the scandal instead of confronting it.
A good place to start is with the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, where calls are mounting for the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt...
"Concerned Catholic parishioners, individual clergy members and university professors have also called for the archbishop to resign as the best solution. Instead, the archdiocese has made a mockery of accountability."
Nienstedt resigned nearly a year after that editorial ran, June 15, 2015, when his archdiocese was hit with a civil suit and criminal investigations, accused of failing to protect the children in its churches by ignoring repeated complaints about a sexually predatory priest. 
That priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, convicted in 2013 of molesting boys, is now in prison. The civil case against the bankrupt archdiocese was settled in late December with a 28-page agreement that included a rigorous protocol for the archdiocese to follow to protect against future instances of child victimization. The criminal case is still pending. 
Nienstedt has been in Battle Creek since Jan. 6, according to a statement from Diocese of Kalamazoo spokesperson Victoria Cessna released in response to media inquiries.
The diocese uses "every process available to us to ensure that the Archbishop, as any visiting priest who is exercising priestly ministry, meets the requirements set forth for them to do so," Cessna said Sunday.
The news spreads
A national network of victims of sex abuse by clergy first alerted the media in Minnesota and Michigan last week to Nienstedt's new position in Battle Creek, complaining of a serious lack of transparency in the introduction of a church leader so notorious.
Reports in Minnesota of Neinstedt's new home were quickly followed by stories in Michigan, and on Friday, Jan. 15, Msgr. Michael Osborn, Vicar General of the Kalamazoo Diocese, sent a letter to parents of students at St. Joseph School in Battle Creek, sharing information "in light of recent concerns expressed regarding Archbishop John C. Nienstedt's temporary stay in the Diocese."
Osborn told parents Nienstedt has not been "appointed, assigned or hired" by the Diocese, that he will not be scheduled for any interaction or involvement with schools, and that Bishop Bradley approved the arrangement after assuring Nienstedt was a priest in good standing as well as receiving "additional assurances regarding Archbishop Nienstedt."
"We remain confident that the environment at St. Joseph Elementary and Middle School is safe. We regret that this important information was not more widely distributed, as was originally intended," the letter closes. 
In an opinion piece for the Battle Creek Enquirer the next day, Jan. 16, St. Philip parent Samantha Pearl wrote: "With all due respect, this letter is an outrageous response to an already inflammatory situation."
After laying out a detailed summary of  Nienstedt's troubles in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which include accusations of improprieties by seminarians and priests, Pearl wrote: "Our pastor introduced this man to our parish through our bulletin as an 'old and trusted friend.' You have told our children in the high school not to listen to the accusations against this man; that he is safe and to be trusted. You have told us, as parents, through Father Osborn's Diocesan letter, that you 'sought additional reassurances' regarding Archbishop Nienstedt and that the environment at our schools is safe.
"What you are asking us to do is suspend reason, judgment, and prudence...
"You have placed a man clearly known to have failed to protect children from sexual predators in a position of ministry — the highest calling of God's work."
Pearl said in an interview Sunday night that she is dismayed by the decision that was made to allow Nienstedt to function as a pastor here, the way in which it was communicated, and the message the Diocese is sending survivors of sex abuse.
"The church is demonstrating that it is willing protect those who have hurt children — because they place the reputation of the clergy above all else," she said.
"It's hard to imagine them inviting this kind of scandal on themselves. It defies reason that this is the choice they have made and that they continue defend. It makes no sense."
She said she has heard her concerns echoed throughout the community.
Not just Catholics, not just Battle Creek
Phone calls to Battle Creek Community Foundation began within hours of the first media reports, said foundation CEO Brenda Hunt, herself a Catholic in a neighboring parish.
Angry donors called to tell Hunt to be sure none of their funds would be used to support scholarships or grants at St. Philip, Hunt said.
"There has been quite a bit of talk in the community," she said. "It doesn't matter if they are Catholic or not.
"In a community like Battle Creek where we are working so hard to protect our children," Hunt said, the decision to invite the archbishop here was unfortunate.
If the pastor at St. Philip needs temporary help, "I really would entertain the opportunity to talk to the diocese about other ways this could be handled," she said, including help from lay Catholics and even other churches. She said volunteers of all faiths helped during the final days of Monsignor William J. Fitzgerald, who died last July.
"We have two other Catholic churches in this community. I am confident other laypersons here would could help meet any short-term needs," Hunt said, without bringing scandal to Battle Creek."The community and Catholic church would be better because of it. There is a way to do this without having this debate."
Ann Phillips Browning said she was molested by a priest who is now practicing back in India, and has had support from the Diocese of Kalamazoo in an attempt to bring that priest to justice.  
She said she left the church for 30 years following her experience as a young person, but came back after going through the Trauma Recovery Program the diocese runs.
"After a lot of healing, I came back 'home,'" she said in an email. "But when I came back I told the Bishop he may regret my coming back because one of my missions in coming back is holding the church accountable for its policies and procedures."
Upon learning of Nienstedt's presence in Battle Creek, she said, "my first thought was: 'Really?'
"My understanding in my interactions with Bishop Bradley is that they want to make sure the priests are not ones that will cause any scandal for the church. It seems to me with this gentleman's history, it could indeed cause scandal for the church. The fact that he has not been chastised by Rome, has not been defrocked or demoted may qualify him to be regarded, technically, as a 'priest in good standing,' " she said. 
"But as far as I am concerned, for a priest in good standing there is no question of his character or trustworthiness as a priest."
"If I were a parishioner in that church, I would not want him to be my minister," she said.
Precautions
Diocese spokeswoman Cessna released more details in response to questions posed by the Kalamazoo Gazette to Deacon Patrick Hall, victim assistance coordinator for the Diocese of Kalamazoo, who has has been contacted by two people with concerns about Nienstedt's work in Battle Creek.
Cessna said that all volunteers who work with children are required to attend child safety awareness training and undergo a criminal history background check, that all visiting priests are required to submit a letter of good standing from their superior authority before practicing public ministry in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, and that Bishop Bradley received confirmation on this requirement. 
Nienstedt has completed VIRTUS training -- the 'safe environment' training the church uses -- and a background check was also conducted by the Diocese of Kalamazoo, as is part of the church's normal protocol.
"To our knowledge there are not any pending allegations against Archbishop Nienstedt," Cessna said.

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