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Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

ST. PAUL, Minnesota, December 19, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda is “troubled” that the Vatican has not concluded an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against his predecessor. He has also stated that he “strongly” favors lay involvement in fostering bishop accountability in the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse scandal.

Hebda, in a noteworthy letter to the faithful last Friday, expressed concern that the 2014 investigation into Archbishop John Nienstedt, who resigned in 2015 amid allegations of misconduct with adults and charges that the archdiocese had mishandled charges of clergy abuse of minors, had not reached closure.

“As far as I know, any effort by the Vatican to further address the allegations was suspended in June 2015 when Archbishop Nienstedt resigned his office. Thus, the matter remains unresolved for the accusers, for Archbishop Nienstedt and for the public. I share the frustration that is felt by them, and believe this situation highlights the need for a better-defined process and independent mechanism to resolve allegations made against bishops,” he wrote in his Dec. 14 letter. 

Nienstedt has denied the allegations of misconduct throughout, and after the release of Hebda’s letter, which also mentioned previously unreleased allegations against him, Neinstedt told MPR News that he welcomes an investigation.

Bishop accountability was a “major topic” at the recent Fall General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Hebda said.

He joined USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and others in willingness to allow lay involvement in cleaning up clergy sexual misconduct, while also putting forth concrete steps he would undertake within his authority as archbishop of St. Paul Minneapolis, including a response to the newer allegations against Nienstedt.

“As mentioned before, I strongly favor the creation of a lay-led mechanism for investigating and assessing any allegations made against me or any other bishop,” he stated. “It is clear to me that expanding meaningful lay involvement is essential for us to accomplish cultural change and put in place a credible and lasting process.” 

“In order to fully address bishop accountability,” Hebda continued, “the Church needs a national or regional board empowered to act, much as our well-respected Ministerial Review Board has been empowered to address allegations involving our priests and deacons. The Church cannot fulfill its mission without public trust.”

Lots of talk but minimal action at Bishops’ meeting

With a near total focus on the abuse crisis, the recent USCCB meeting in Baltimore had increased security as the Bishops anticipated angry pushback from laity over their handling of the abuse scandal

Catholics remain frustrated by a lack of definitive action in the clerical sex abuse crisis. And months after release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of abuse by hundreds of priests there, along with revelations that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick abused boys, seminarians and young priests for years while enjoying international prominence in the Church, people in the pews continue to call for accountability from Church leaders. 

Augmenting this was the fact the Vatican intervened at the Bishops’ Baltimore meeting, preventing the USCCB from acting on measures to augment accountability until after a Pope Francis-called meeting in Rome in February

While the Bishops had planned to establish a code of conduct for bishops and establish an independent lay-led team of experts to receive and investigate allegations made against bishops, they were directed to wait for Francis, and they failed at the meeting to agree upon asking the Vatican to release its documentation on McCarrick.

Some bishops were opposed to allowing lay involvement in investigating charges against bishops of either misconduct or failing to properly address charges of abuse. 

Following the Vatican kibosh on the planned USCCB vote, DiNardo announced he would form a task force comprised of several former USCCB presidents to assist him in assessing remaining questions and plans proposed at the Baltimore meeting, as groundwork for the February Vatican abuse gathering.

Francis ordered a “thorough study” of all Vatican documents regarding McCarrick in October, but the full extent of what that means, and whether the February summit of episcopal conference presidents he called will produce concrete action in authentic addressing of sexual abuse in the Church remain to be seen.

'I am the wrong person to ask'

Hebda said clearly that it is the pope who must address misconduct by a bishop, as only the pope has the authority to do so. 

“I have been asked repeatedly whether there are any restrictions on Archbishop Nienstedt’s ministry,” the archbishop said. “My answer has always been that although I do not know of any, I am the wrong person to ask: Bishops report to the Holy Father, not to each other. I have no general juridical authority over Archbishop Nienstedt or any other bishop outside the Archdiocese.”

While he does not have control over any other bishop, he said he does have some control over the public ministry allowed in his particular purview.

In his letter, Hebda discussed a subsequent charge surfacing after Nienstedt’s resignation alleging inappropriate behavior with two unaccompanied minors in a hotel room at World Youth Day in 2005 Germany when Nienstedt was bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota. It is alleged that Nienstedt invited the minors into his room to get out of the rain and wet clothing, proceeding to undress in front of them and inviting them to as well.

Hebda then clarified that Nienstedt, as with any priest facing such allegations, is not free to exercise public ministry in the archdiocese until resolution of the allegations. 

The archbishop said as well that his clarification “is not intended to convey an indication or presumption of guilt,” and that Nienstedt denies the charges. 

“While this may cause some pain,” Hebda said, “my hope is that this decision prompts further action by those with authority over Archbishop Nienstedt to resolve this question.”

Nienstedt told MPR via email that it is “difficult to defend myself because these allegations are of the 'he said, he said' nature.”

“It is my word against the accusers and, as much as they seem to want to discredit me, I don't want to harm them,” Nienstedt said. “I am relieved, however, that Archbishop Hebda will be sharing the 2014 Archdiocesan investigation to an independent review board. I welcome an impartial look at the facts and the opportunity to defend myself.”

Viganò another element

Also in contention regarding the earlier allegations against Nienstedt is the handling of them by former Apostolic Nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò.

A 2016 New York Times report alleged Viganò had “quashed” an independent investigation into sexual misconduct on the part of Nienstedt, who’d been found innocent by police authorities. 

There was some question over the handling of the investigation of Neinstedt owing to the choice of a group of lawyers who had fought against the archbishop in the Minnesota gay “marriage” referendum.  

Viganò denies the charge he suppressed the report. Expecting that such a charge would be used to discredit him, he published a refutation when the accusations surfaced again shortly after he’d released his bombshell August 25 testimony implicating the pope and other senior prelates in covering for McCarrick. 

The former nuncio to the U.S. provided extensive documentation supporting the veracity of his conduct with his statement, which was included in a LifeSiteNews report.

Viganò detailed for LifeSiteNews that an investigation called by Pope Francis into his handling of the Nienstedt matter had cleared him, and that documents to this effect can be found in the offices of both the U.S. Nunciature and the Vatican Secretary of State, though for some reason the Vatican has never issued a statement on the issue, neither on the investigation or refuting the 2016 Times report. 

Included in the documentation accompanying Viganò’s statement was an email communication from him to Archbishop Hebda in January of this year that detailed repeated unsuccessful attempts by Viganò to procure a public correction from his successor, Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, and Hebda of the memorandum from the archdiocesan liaison to the lawyers conducting the Nienstedt inquiry; the memorandum being the basis for the New York Times.

In his letter to the faithful of the Twin Cities archdiocese last Friday, Hebda said he would continue to advocate for creation of an independent review board so that any additional investigation could be handled fairly in a way that is worthy of public trust, and he committed to hand on the full 2014 archdiocesan investigation to whatever national or regional review board is created.

He announced a new position in the archdiocesan Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment to ensure that the voice of survivors of clergy sexual abuse will be heard from regularly within the archdiocese’s leadership. 

Hebda also released any survivor who’d ever entered into a settlement agreement with a confidentiality provision from having to keep that provision, and offered specific ongoing availability to meet with any survivors who would like to do so. 

Holding out hope for real results from Francis’ February meeting

The archbishop concluded his letter conveying the thoughts held by countless lay Catholics – disappointment in the lack of accountability of bishops so far in the abuse scandal, and hope that Pope Francis’ February meeting with bishops heading the world’s episcopal conferences would generate real progress in the crisis. 

“I share the disappointment of many that more progress has not been made at the national and international levels to address bishop accountability,” said Hebda. “It is my prayer and hope that the February meeting Pope Francis is convening with bishops from around the world produces tangible results.” 

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