Archbishop Bernard Hebda, in his first public interviews, said Friday that his priority during his temporary stay in the Twin Cities is to tackle legal issues such as the bankruptcy and clergy abuse lawsuits confronting the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese.
He also is considering the growing demands to release an internal investigation into reports of sexual misconduct by former Archbishop John Nienstedt. That investigation was conducted last year but never made public.
“I certainly recognize there is a great interest there, and it would be difficult for the archdiocese to move forward without really considering carefully how we might be able to give an accounting of what’s been going on,” said Hebda.
Hebda, the coadjutor archbishop in Newark, N.J., arrived in Minnesota this week following his appointment as temporary administrator of the Twin Cities archdiocese. He replaces Nienstedt, who resigned June 15 shortly after the Ramsey County attorney filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese charging “failure to protect children.”
Hebda will meet worshipers and celebrate his first mass at the St. Paul Cathedral at 10 a.m. Sunday.
Hebda said his biggest challenge is to quickly absorb a lot information. He’s getting a crash course in church finance, clergy abuse litigation, the Nienstedt investigation and the general running and staffing of the archdiocese.
“As coadjutor in Newark, I had a long time to come to know the people before I had to make decisions,” said Hebda, sitting in the St. Paul chancery that he’d never set foot in until this week.
“Here, I’m jumping in midstream and there’s a lot to do right away. It really is a challenge to come up to speed, to come to know all the people involved in the archdiocese, the gifts and skills they have to help us move forward.”
As the newcomer, he wants to make sure he is well-informed, effective, and doesn’t “make decisions now that I’ll regret later.”
Hebda, who has been criticized by clergy abuse victims in Newark for not being a visible force for reform there, said he has no plans to meet with Minnesota clergy abuse survivors at this time.
“I don’t know if they want to talk to someone who will be here a few months, but at the same time, I would be open to doing that,” he said.
The archbishop, whose résumé includes 13 years working in Rome, speculated that the Vatican would appoint a permanent archbishop within a year. Just don’t expect a ton of activity on the appointment this summer, he warned.
“The Italian tradition is for everyone to take a month off in the summer,” he explained. “I can’t imagine much will be done in July or August.”
He’s getting ‘a lot of advice’
Hebda, 55, is a Pittsburgh native. He seemed surprised that Twin Cities faithful have not been shy about contacting him, including urging him to release the findings of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by Nienstedt over the years.
“I am getting a lot of mail,” he said. “I’m receiving a lot of prayers, a lot of advice … a lot of invitations.”
His background includes a law degree from Columbia University and a canon law degree from Rome. He acknowledged that the law degree could be helpful as he deals with the archdiocese’s many legal troubles. But he stressed he hasn’t practiced law in 30 years and that he is only a member of the bar association in Pennsylvania, joking, “It will be malpractice for me to practice law here.”
A surprise move for him
The move to St. Paul has created an abrupt lifestyle shift for Hebda, accustomed to a lower profile in Newark, where he is slated to replace retiring Archbishop John J. Myers next July. He fully expected to stay focused on Newark until then, meeting Catholic leaders and preparing the transition.
He said he was in “absolute shock” when the Vatican asked him to become temporary archbishop in the Twin Cities. First, he had no idea that Nienstedt would be leaving, he said. Second, he already had a job.
But in the same “spirit of trust” that he accepted the job in Newark, he accepted his second job in St. Paul, he said.
Until a permanent archbishop is named, he will divide his time between Minnesota and New Jersey. He had never set foot in Minnesota, except for its airport, and said he’s been surprised by “the beauty of the area.”
In the weeks ahead, he will continue meeting with staff, department heads, attorneys, finance directors and more to provide temporary guidance to one of the most troubled archdioceses in the nation. He said he’s been impressed by the people he’s met.
Said Hebda: “I sense a real commitment to the church and to get beyond the difficulties of the day.”
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511