In February 2006, John C. Nienstedt, Bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota, dedicated his monthly column to “Moral Corruption.”
“Two recent events alerted me to the fact that our society is indeed on a slide toward moral corruption,” he began. The first dealt with assisted suicide, “the second event involves the movie, ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ which I do not recommend for your viewing,” he cautioned.
“Hollywood seeks to make this film into a contemporary version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with, of course, the necessary changes in gender. The story is about two lonely cowboys herding sheep up a mountain range. One night after a drinking binge, one man makes a pass at the other and within seconds the latter mounts the former in an act of wanton anal sex. This sets off a lustful passion in both men that ‘grabs hold of them’ and they find impossible to control.”
“I wonder if the trend makers in Hollywood really think they know where this is leading us as we slide further and further down the slope of immorality. Surely they must be aware that they have turned their backs on God and the standards of God in their quest to make evil look so attractive.”
Arcbhishop Nienstedt Under Investigation
Eight years later, on July 1, 2014, Commonweal Magazine reported that John C. Nienstedt, now 67 and Archbishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul, is under investigation for inappropriate sexual behavior with men.
Jennifer Hasselberger, former chancellor for canonical affairs for the archdiocese turned whistle blower, said she was interviewed April 16, 2014 by two attorneys from the Minneapolis law firm Greene Espel for the investigation. Among the investigators’ topics was the nature of Archbishop Nienstedt’s relationship with the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, 48.
Wehmeyer pleaded guilty in 2012 to sexually abusing two brothers, ages 12 and 14. They were sons of a parish employee at Blessed Sacrament Church, where Wehmeyer served as pastor. Nienstedt appointed him to the position despite evidence of sexual misconduct in previous years. On February 1, 2013 Wehmeyer was convicted of 20 counts of child sex abuse and child pornography and sentenced to five years in prison.
Neinstedt was investigated in December 2013 for inappropriately touching a boy during a photo shoot following a confirmation ceremony in May 2009. According to the investigation, following the ceremony, the boy told his mother that Nienstedt touched his buttocks.
In a later interview with police, the accuser said that during the photograph session Nienstedt’s hand had moved down his back to his buttocks, and that he thought it was “creepy,” but did not feel violated.
After locating the photograph of the accuser with Nienstedt, police observed that the group is arranged on the stairs and the archbishop is standing one step higher than the accuser. So, it appeared that Nienstedt would have to bend to reach the boy’s buttocks and any such action would likely be witnessed by others present. Based on the investigation, the attorney’s office decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Nienstedt.
Nienstedt Hard on Gay Catholic Families
Archbishop Nienstedt had a reputation of being very tough on gay people, and has made homosexuality his signature issue. He famous (or infamous) for spending $650,000 on DVDs and a PR campaign to persuade Minnesota citizens to vote against same-sex marriage. (It passed). But his curt response to a Catholic mother who wrote to him in April 2010 pleading for acceptance for her gay child stands out for its utter lack of feeling:
“I write to inform you,” the letter begins, “that the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality, as described in paragraphs 2357 and 2358 and 2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is rooted in Scripture and based on Natural Moral Law. It, therefore, shares in God’s revelation to us. Catholics are bound in conscience to believe this teaching. Those who do not cannot consider themselves to be Catholic and ought not to participate in the sacramental life of the Church.”
“Indeed, some might find this a hard saying but many of Jesus’ teachings were likewise received as such. I urge you to reconsider the position you expressed in your letter. Your eternal salvation may well depend upon a conversation of heart on on this topic.”
I think the Archbishop meant “conversion” vs “conversation” but the end result is the same–if the mother didn’t change her views and withdraw support from her child she was facing eternal damnation.
A gay man, Gregg Larson, confronted Archbishop Nienstedt while he was at dinner in a restaurant with another man. Larson broke Nienstedt’s marriage DVD in front of him, along with his letter requiring all Catholics to support the ban. Larson then told Nienstedt that he had heard rumors that the archbishop was a closeted gay man, saying that if the rumors were true, the prelate was a hypocrite.
The archbishop responded, “You shouldn’t believe rumors,” to which Larson allegedly retorted, “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” “And at that point he kind of raised his hand and snarled ‘Get out!’ And I responded that his behavior was unbecoming of an archbishop and that maybe we needed an exorcist here…The other priest said that we were ruining their dinner and my partner said that they were ruining people’s lives.”
Things began to unravel for Archbishop Nienstedt in April 2013 when Elizabeth Hasselberger resigned her post as chancellor for canonical affairs for the archdiocese. She left in frustration after Nienstedt failed to report or discipline clergy suspected of sex abuse. Hasselberger began leaking internal documents to the press that appeared to detail efforts to shield abusers.
Late in 2013 the archdiocese began receiving a series of allegations that Nienstedt had a string of improper relationships with men or had made unwanted advances on others. This was around the same time as the buttocks-touching incident surfaced.
Former chancellor Elizabeth Hasselberger believes the investigators from Greene Espel have received “ten sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety on the part of the archbishop dating from his time as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as Bishop of New Ulm, and while coadjutor and archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis.” She told a reporter that “he also stands accused of retaliating against those who refused his advances or otherwise questioned his conduct.”
In a written statement, Archbishop Nienstedt responded that the allegations or nothing more than a “personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage.” He also suspects that accusers are coming forward because of “difficult decisions” he has made, but, citing privacy laws, he would not elaborate.
Questions from the Censor Liborum
1. What will Pope Francis do if Archbishop Nienstedt is found by the investigation to have harassed and threatened priests and seminarians for sex?
2. Why did it take a lay woman – Elizabeth Hasselberger – to expose a culture of moral corruption in the chancery?
3. How many times did Archbishop Nienstedt watch “Brokeback Mountain”?