The church bankruptcy settlement last week closed a key chapter of the often contentious relationship between clergy abuse survivors and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, but both sides acknowledged this isn’t the end.
Abuse survivors are asking if action will be taken against archdiocese officials in charge during more recent abuses, including former vicar general the Rev. Kevin McDonough and former St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt.
The archdiocese is exploring ways to help parishes reach out to survivors in deeper ways. It has also joined a chorus of church leaders nationally calling for greater accountability of Catholic bishops who overlook or engaged in abuse. Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens acknowledged the problem recently, describing the archdiocese investigation into Nienstedt for possible misconduct as “doomed to fail.”
Meanwhile, parish priests are working to earn back trust from folks in the pews.
“The settlement is just a part of establishing some justice,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda said after the bankruptcy settlement.
Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota county attorneys also are now drawn into the issue. Dayton met with a group of county attorneys last week to discuss a request to convene a grand jury to investigate and bring charges against clergy who abused children or covered it up.
Discussions remain “ongoing,” the governor’s office said.
All parties acknowledge that the archdiocese is a far safer place than before the clergy abuse scandal exploded in 2014 and the subsequent bankruptcy. A professional office of child protection was built up at archdiocese headquarters, with clear procedures for reporting, investigating and notifying police of clergy child abusers.
But a gap remains for handling complaints against bishops, both here and nationally, said archdiocese leaders. That has become increasingly apparent with recent sex abuse allegations against former U.S. bishops. It was also evident during a 2014 investigation into Nienstedt, who ordered the archdiocese investigation into himself following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.
The Nienstedt probe was abruptly halted and never made public. Internal archdiocese documents indicate that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, then the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, requested a halt to the investigation. Viganò has denied that.
Cozzens recently described the challenges at the time.
“Throughout our efforts, we did not know where we could turn for assistance, because there was no meaningful structure to address allegations against bishops,” Cozzens wrote in a recent statement.
“We did not have enough objectivity or experience with such investigations, nor did we have the authority to act.”
Attorney Tom Johnson, the archdiocese ombudsman for abuse survivors, is among those who believe it’s now time for the Nienstedt investigation to be aired.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” Johnson said.
The Rev. Dan Griffith, who was the archdiocese’s liaison with the law firm investigating Nienstedt, agreed.
“The Archdiocese has made much progress in … accountability, safe environment and victim outreach,” said Griffith. “An outlier in this regard is the Nienstedt investigation. This matter needs to be resolved with objectivity and transparency.”
Abuse survivors also want to see further action taken against the abusing priests, many of whom were identified in bankruptcy claims.
“If these priests have been recognized by the archdiocese as credibly accused [of misconduct], why are they keeping them on the payroll?” said Jim Keenan, head of the survivor’s creditors committee in bankruptcy court. “Why keep them in the organization? To do that means you support pedophiles.”
Helping victims heal
Hebda, in remarks after the bankruptcy settlement was approved, described steps the archdiocese is and will be taking to try to help victims, many who long ago left the church.
“We’re hoping … now that we are no longer adversaries in court … there will be more openness,” he said.
The archdiocese is reshaping its Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, he said, so that it can be a better resource to parishes and be “a vehicle for outreach [for] those being hurt.” It also is working to incorporate suggestions from survivors for how the church can help them, he said.
The archdiocese also is experimenting with “restorative justice and healing” forums in a handful of churches, bringing in convener Janine Geske of Marquette University’s Restorative Justice Initiative, to deepen parishioners’ understanding of clergy abuse and to be a bridge to survivors.
Rev. John Bauer of the Basilica of St. Mary recently attended one of the forums.
“Our brothers and sisters have been grievously wounded by the actions of priests and bishops,” said Bauer. “We can’t allow ourselves to think that the settlement resolves this pain. We need to ask the victim survivors what we, as a community of faith, can do to help them heal.”
Robert Kennedy, a professor of Catholic Studies at University of St. Thomas, has been speaking to audiences about the clergy abuse issue. People still have a lot of questions and concerns.
“People are confused and deeply disappointed,” Kennedy said. “They want to know, where do we go from here?”
Many parish priests across the Twin Cities have heard the same. Reaching a financial settlement, in some ways, may have been easier than rebuilding lost trust among parishioners and providing the support that abuse victims need.
Said Bauer: “We have our work cut out for us.”
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511