Ten days after prosecutors charged the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis with mishandling repeated complaints related to clergy sex abuse, the archbishop and another top bishop there resigned Monday in a rare public fall for U.S. church officials.
Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché were not charged individually in the case and said they were stepping down to remove distractions from the archdiocese as it faces a crisis.
“In order to give the Archdiocese a new beginning amidst the many challenges we face, I have submitted my resignation as Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis to our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and I have just received word that he has accepted it,” Nienstedt said in a statement. “My leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of His Church and those who perform them.”
Piché’s brief statement also said he felt his presence was “getting in the way” of healing.
The Most Rev. Bernard A. Hebda will serve as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese until Pope Francis appoints a new archbishop.
The dramatic resignations came five days after Pope Francis approved a new high-level body at the Vatican specifically aimed at holding accountable bishops who fail to deal with abusers. Advocates for abuse survivors and Catholic law experts said the new body was a major step toward holding leadership responsible. Very few bishops have left their positions over charges of sexual abuse coverup.
In April, the Vatican accepted the resignation of Kansas City, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn, the only U.S. bishop to be criminally convicted of covering up abuse.
Earlier this month, Minnesota prosecutors charged the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over its handling of clergy abuse claims. They said church leaders failed to protect children from unspeakable harm and “turned a blind eye” to repeated reports of inappropriate behavior by a priest who was later convicted of molesting two boys, the Associated Press reported.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi told the AP that prosecutors didn’t yet have enough evidence to charge any individuals in the case. The archdiocese itself faces six gross misdemeanor counts in connection to the abuse.
Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest who is now serving a five-year prison term, was convicted of sexually abusing two boys in 2010, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune notes. He was pastor at the Blessed Sacrament Church in St. Paul at the time. Wehmeyer also faces similar charges in Wisconsin.
On Monday, the Vatican declined to say whether Nienstedt and Piché had been forcibly removed or had stepped down by choice. Their resignations were offered under a segment of canon law that says a leader “who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.” A spokesman characterized the resignations as the church having “now turned the page on a very difficult moment.”
Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks abuse cases, said Monday that the Minneapolis clerics were “low-hanging fruit” and that Pope Francis must clarify why they left office.
“The last three popes have removed bishops for this,” she said. “But no one has made an explicit statement saying this is the reason. That kind of confirmation in light of last week’s [announcement about the new tribunal] is really important. We can’t continue to have popes staying mum when bishops are removed.”
Nienstedt had led the archdiocese since 2008. According to its Web site, the archdiocese ministers to 825,000 Roman Catholics in the greater Twin Cities area.
Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, one of Francis’ closest U.S. confidants, said Monday that the resignations were a tribute to the pope – and that the fact no one had been explicitly punished was just normal face-saving that happens everywhere in U.S. culture.
“I think this is a great tribute to Pope Francis.. the church has responded clearly and directly,” Wuerl said at an event about church-union relations, where he was asked at a news conference about the resignations. “I wish that one thing that would come out of this would be for the wider community to say: ‘That’s a good example of how to go about things.’ [That] we’d have in our government schools, government operations the same accountability, I’d hope we’d require what we see modeled in what the church has learned in this sad experience.”
Asked if he would prefer to see leaders explicitly removed for their failure to stop abuse – rather than allowing them to resign without any admission of guilt – Wuerl said the church was just doing what other institutions do.
“We see that all the time, at levels of government when someone leaves, there is always some proviso made that the person _ everbody understand what’s going on but that the person voluntarily resigns is a recognition that now they undertand how significant this is,” he told a news conference. “My point is, I’d love to see the example of the church now become normative in the whole public domain, hospitals, to see that same zero tolerance…We’d be more than happy to offer that.”
This post has been updated multiple times.
Correction: A previous version of this story online incorrectly identified Anne Barrett Doyle as a survivor of clerical abuse. This post has also been updated to correct the name of BishopAccountability.org.