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Archbishop temporarily steps aside after boy's allegations; chief says church not cooperating

St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt speaks in a video in early December 2013 about clergy sex abuse allegations. On Dec. 17, 2013, he stepped away from public ministry after a boy accused him of inappropriately touching him. FORUM NEWS SERVICE1 / 2
A nativity scene at the St. Paul Cathedral on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Don Davis2 / 2

ST. PAUL – Minnesota's priest sex abuse scandal took two dramatic turns Tuesday: The St. Paul-Minneapolis Catholic archbishop announced he will leave public ministry while he is investigated for allegedly improperly touching a boy and the St. Paul police chief said his department has received little cooperation from the archdiocese during sex abuse investigations.

Archbishop John Nienstedt strongly denied touching a boy on the buttocks in 2009 during a group photo shoot after a confirmation ceremony. He said he was informed during the weekend of the claim that he touched a boy on the buttocks.

But while Nienstedt said he hoped for a quick and complete investigation into his case, St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith said the archdiocese has refused to cooperate in recent weeks as investigators looked into multiple reports of priest sex abuse.

Hours after Nienstedt revealed the allegation against him, Smith told reporters the archdiocese says it is helping police in the sex cases, "but if you want to talk to somebody you have to open up your door." The chief said Nienstedt's staff has rejected all attempts to interview clergy about sex abuse allegations.

Tuesday's developments add to controversy that has built in recent weeks surrounding allegations that many priests in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese and elsewhere in Minnesota have sexually abused people. They follow Nienstedt's Sunday apology for not doing a good enough job investigating sex abuse claims.

On Tuesday, Nienstedt strongly denied that he has abused any child.

"I do not know the individual involved; he has not been made known to me,' Nienstedt said in a statement. "I presume he is sincere in believing what he claims, but I must say that this allegation is absolutely and entirely false."

The archbishop said that during such photo opportunities, he always keeps one hand on a staff, known as a crozier, and the other on the shoulder of a newly confirmed person or on a stole he wears. "I do that deliberately and there are hundreds of photographs to verify that fact."

The archbishop decided to temporarily leave public ministry during the investigation after consulting with the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States. Longtime church official Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche will take over public duties that Nienstedt otherwise would do.

Tuesday’s revelation builds on an expanding clergy sex abuse scandal.

Chief Smith accused the archdiocese of keeping police in the dark as his officers try to investigate numerous reports of clergy sex abuse.

“The St. Paul Police Department is putting many resources toward these cases ... unlimited resources,” Smith said.

However, the chief added, police have asked the archdiocese to talk to officials who understand the internal process of dealing with sex abuse charges.

“We have been told, ‘No,’ “ Smith said.

Archdiocese officials say they are cooperating with police.

Smith said a former top church official is an example of the refusal to talk to police. The Rev. Kevin McDonough, who had been a key role in internal sex abuse investigations, only allowed police to talk to his attorney, Smith said.

“Today the archdiocese has voiced its willingness for cooperation …” Smith said Tuesday. “I expect nothing less.”

To be able to solve the cases, he added, “you have to talk to people.”

The archdiocese and other church organizations face numerous lawsuits over sex abuse allegations.

Mike Finnegan of the Jeff Anderson and Associates law firm in St. Paul said that publicity surrounding the abuse scandal is prompting others to come forward.

The Anderson law firm has nearly 20 sex abuse lawsuits pending against the archdiocese, with a couple of other law firms also filing suits. Finnegan said he expects more suits.

In early December, the archdiocese released names of 30 priests accused of sex abuse. On Monday, the Winona diocese disclosed the names of 14 priests accused of similar acts in southeastern Minnesota.

In October, a top Nienstedt aide, the Rev. Peter Laird, suddenly resigned after suggestions that the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese may have covered up information that a priest possessed child pornography.

Retired Archbishop Harry Flynn and McDonough resigned from the St. Thomas University board this fall after a Minnesota Public Radio investigation found that Flynn kept a priest on active duty after allegations that he abused two children and kept child pornography on his computer.

At age 61, Nienstedt became archbishop in 2008, following Flynn. He is a Detroit native and served churches in that area before becoming bishop in Dearborn, Mich. He became the New Ulm, Minn., diocese bishop in 2001.

On Sunday, Nienstedt addressed the priest abuse scandal in an Edina sermon: “The negative news reports about past incidents of clerical sexual abuse in this local church have rightly been met with shame, embarrassment and outrage that such heinous acts could be perpetrated by men who had taken priestly vows as well as bishops who failed to remove them from ministry,”

He said when he took over in 2008 he was told the abuse situation was settled. On Sunday, he admitted he has overlooked abuse and he apologized.

“You deserve better,” Nienstedt told Edina parishioners.

In a letter he wrote to “brothers and sisters in Christ” on Tuesday, the archbishop said he already missed his public ministry.

“These days will give me the time to pray for you and the individual involved,” Nienstedt wrote. “I ask that you pray for me, too.”

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.