ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) – An attorney in Minnesota is calling on Pope Francis to take action after documents released Wednesday show that, in his words, a “classic cover up” took place in the Twin Cities archdiocese, involving the former archbishop and top Vatican officials.
Jeff Anderson, an attorney who has represented hundreds of people claiming sex abuse by priests, told reporters Wednesday afternoon that documents recently made public show that former Archbishop John Nienstedt had a “sexual interest” in former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, as well as other priests.
Wehmeyer, who is currently in prison, was convicted in 2012 of abusing two boys in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin.
The documents were made public after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis acknowledged wrongdoing Wednesday morning in not protecting the three victims. In an agreement with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, criminal charges against the archdiocese were dropped, and, as a result, documents in the criminal investigation were made public.
“The county attorney’s arrangement is a giant step forward,” Anderson said. “They met with the survivors of Wehmeyer and the entire family, and discussed with them what they needed and wanted.”
But before the public could read anything of the newly-released documents, Anderson, who works with abuse victims, told reporters that the documents show “a good, old-fashioned cover up” within the archdiocese.
Specifically, the attorney said an internal church investigation on Nienstedt was shut down by Vatican officials.
This investigation, which was started in the wake of the Wehmeyer abuse scandal, uncovered concerns of Nienstedt’s relationship with Wehmeyer — including the fact that Nienstedt promoted the priest out of the blue to pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul in 2009.
This promotion came despite protests from canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger, who expressed concerns about a 2004 incident when Wehmeyer was accused of soliciting sex from teen boys in a bookstore. Haselberger eventually took the case to authorities.
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When archdiocese investigators brought their report about Nienstedt’s relationship with Wehmeyer to a Vatican ambassador in Washington D.C., the papal representative told the archdiocese officials to stop the investigation immediately.
Anderson added that the documents show that when archdiocese investigators asked in writing for the papal delegate to reconsider, citing specific cover up concerns, the Vatican official instructed them to burn the letter.
The papal delegate was identified as Carlo Maria Vigano, who stepped down from his post in April.
“Vigano orders it to be halted, and then when asked to be reconsider, orders the destruction of the document,” Anderson said.
At the end of the press conference, Anderson showed emotion and called on the pope to take action against Nienstedt, as well as archdiocese and Vatican officials.
“Pope Francis, if your words mean anything, just do it,” Anderson said, citing the pontiff’s statements on holding priests and church officials accountable. “You have the power, the evidence is before you, do it. Because if you do, it will send a message across this county and across this community and across western civilization that this is intolerable. And you have the power … so just do it.”
Anderson noted that Nienstedt remains a priest in good standing and that no church official in connection to this case, whether in Minnesota or Rome, has been defrocked.
“As of last week [Nienstedt] is doing masses in California,” he said. “His removal from a clerical state is required.”
Nienstedt stepped down as the head of the Twin Cities archdiocese after criminal and civil charges came down against the archdiocese last year. Bernard Hebda was tapped to replace him and became his permanent replacement as of March.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Nienstedt released a statement addressing the concerns that he was attracted to Wehmeyer and participated in a cover up. The former archbishop stated that he is heterosexual and has been celibate all his life.
“I have never solicited sex, improperly touched anyone and have not used my authority to cover up, or even try to cover up, any allegation of sexual abuse,” he said, adding: “I believe that the allegations have been made as a personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with Catholic Church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same sex marriage.”
The archdiocese also released a statement, saying that officials in Ramsey County and St. Paul have investigated the now-public documents and have dropped the child endangerment charges against the church.
“That dismissal is unconditional and speaks for itself,” the statement said.
Hebda, who now leads the archdiocese, said he was sorry early Wednesday for what happened to Wehmeyer’s victims. He said the archdiocese now has systems in place to prevent such abuse from happening in the archdiocese’s parishes and schools.