MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — John Nienstedt’s term as leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was rocky almost from the start.
His conservative views became well-known when he launched an expensive and unapologetic fight against gay marriage. In the last two years, he was besieged by a clergy sex-abuse scandal that included numerous lawsuits from victims and led to bankruptcy. Earlier this month, the archdiocese was criminally charged for failing to protect children.
On Monday, Nienstedt stepped down, saying he wanted to give the archdiocese a fresh start after his leadership had “drawn attention away from” the church’s good works and “those who perform them.”
Nienstedt took over the St. Paul archdiocese in 2007, replacing moderate Archbishop Harry Flynn, and his conservative reputation preceded him. As bishop in the nearby New Ulm Diocese, Nienstedt had criticized his predecessor’s call for dialogue on opening the priesthood to women. He also chided a priest in the small town of St. Peter for worshipping with Lutherans on several occasions after a tornado destroyed the town’s Catholic church in 1998.
And he led a drive to pressure legislators for a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman, a cause he would take up again in St. Paul.
In a 2014 interview with The Associated Press, Nienstedt said he was shown memos about problem priests but did not fully grasp the scope of the problem until a former archdiocese employee went public with her concerns.
He said at the time that he “acknowledged my responsibility in the current crisis we face,” but he also said he did not believe that he had mismanaged the issue.
“In a sense, you could say that I didn’t see the forest through the trees,” Nienstedt said. “I saw the trees on a day-to-day basis. But when everything started coming out in October, whoa nelly, I just wasn’t aware that there was the kind of breadth to the whole thing — which surprised me and kind of sickened me.”
Nienstedt was the center of two separate investigations himself.
One alleged he touched a boy inappropriately in a public setting. A police memo concluded that the allegations were unlikely, and no criminal charges were brought.
The other investigation, which Nienstedt initiated himself, is unresolved and involves accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior by Nienstedt with seminarians and priests. Nienstedt denied those allegations in 2014 and said he had nothing to hide.
“I’ve never lied,” he told the AP, adding: “A bishop is not just a CEO of a company. A bishop is really a father of a family of faith. … When problems arise, he doesn’t run away, but he stays and confronts the situation.”
The Rev. Michael Tegeder, a Minneapolis priest who frequently criticized Nienstedt and had called for his resignation for years, said Monday that Nienstedt would have been happier elsewhere.
“He came into this diocese without really any empathy. He’s been, since age 14, in an all-male seminary and church environment. He just doesn’t relate to normal people,” Tegeder said.
Nienstedt’s rigid stance on church teachings became well known in 2010, when he appeared in a DVD that was mailed to several hundred thousand Catholic families around the state. On the disc, he called for a public vote on a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Several days later, he denied communion to a group of college students because they were wearing rainbow-colored buttons in support of gay rights.
Nienstedt explained his conservatism, saying he believed spiritual leaders have a duty to talk about important issues even if some of their views might be unpopular.
“I believe that it’s important that if you’re going to be Catholic, that you have to be 100 percent Catholic,” Nienstedt said. “That you stand by the church, you believe what the church believes and you pass that on to your sons and daughters and your grandsons and granddaughters.”
Nienstedt has spent the last two years trying to the repair the archdiocese. He has offered apologies and said in numerous statements that he was confronting clergy sex abuse. Late last year the archdiocese agreed to work with victims’ attorneys on a new set of protocols to protect children.
On Monday, he said he felt privileged to serve as the archdiocese’s leader, and he thanked his supporters.
“I leave with a clear conscience, knowing that my team and I have put in place solid protocols to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults,” he said. “I ask for continued prayers for the well-being of this archdiocese and its future leaders. I also ask for your continued prayers for me.”
Associated Press writers Doug Glass in Minneapolis and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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