Archbishop who resigned amid allegations of sex abuse cover-up resurfaces in Michigan

Bishop John C. Nienstedt © Rick Wilking
John Nienstedt resigned as head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2015 after he allegedly ignored repeated warnings of a sexually abusive priest. He has now taken a temporary position at a church in Michigan, to the alarm of parishioners.

Beginning on January 6, St. Philip Catholic Church in Battle Creek invited Nienstedt to assist with saying masses and other duties within the Diocese of Kalamazoo while his friend, Father John Fleckenstein, attends to health issues and other projects for the diocese.

The church announced the move in a bulletin earlier this month. Nienstedt, 68, "will celebrate some of the weekend and weekday Masses, visit the sick in the hospital, visit the sick and homebound, and celebrate Mass for the nursing home and assisted living facilities," Fleckenstein's memo said. "He will also celebrate some Masses on Sundays around the Diocese when there is a priest who needs to be away. ... While the Archbishop is not 'assigned' to the parish, I'm grateful he will assist us in these next few months."

Nienstedt and another church official of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have been accused of shielding a priest accused of sexually abusing children. Ten days after the pair resigned on June 15, 2015, the Ramsey County, Minnesota, attorney's office filed criminal charges and civil clams against the archdiocese, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2015.

The criminal case is ongoing, but a settlement agreement in the civil case was reached last month, according to the Pioneer Press. The criminal charges levied against the archdiocese were the first of its kind in the US. The priest was convicted in 2013 of molesting boys and is now in prison.

"The entire nation's Roman Catholic child sexual abuse scandal just moved to Battle Creek," said Patrick Wall, a former Catholic priest and now a Minnesota attorney whose firm has represented hundreds of victims of child sex abuse crimes by priests in the Minnesota archdiocese, according to MLive.com.

"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?"

Choosing Nienstedt, a clergyman steeped in controversy, "makes no sense," Samantha Pearl, a parent and parishioner at St. Philip, told MLive.com. "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."

The Kalamazoo archdiocese defended the decision to bring in Nienstedt.

The diocese employs "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," Diocese of Kalamazoo spokesperson Victoria Cessna said, according to MLive.com.

"To our knowledge there are not any pending allegations against Archbishop Nienstedt," Cessna added.

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On Jan. 15, parents of St. Joseph School in Battle Creek received a letter from Msgr. Michael Osborn, Vicar General of the Kalamazoo Diocese "in light of recent concerns expressed regarding Archbishop John C. Nienstedt's temporary stay in the Diocese."

Nienstedt was not "appointed, assigned or hired" by the diocese, will not be involved with the schools in the diocese, and was only approved upon "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," Osborn wrote.

Pearl echoed others in the community when she denounced Nienstedt's role in Battle Creek and Osborn's letter to parents, writing in the Battle Creek Enquirer that Osborn's "letter is an outrageous response to an already inflammatory situation" and that the diocese was asking its parishioners to "suspend reason, judgment, and prudence."

"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 told MLive.com.

Parishioners at St. Philip received a letter from Nienstedt in which the disgraced archbishop decried "misinformation" and "false allegations made made over two years ago that have again resurfaced." He said he had not been sued nor has he been subject of legal charges made against him. He said he resigned from the archdiocese "in order for that local church to have a new beginning, not because I had done anything wrong."

In the past, Nienstedt has defended himself saying he inherited the cover-up scandal from his predecessors, whom he believed had handled the situation prior to his arrival in 2007. Yet court filings in the criminal case against the St. Paul archdiocese suggest Nienstedt knew the priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, was a sexual predator and did little about it.