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Theologians warn of spiritual crisis, ‘pastoral breakdown’ over sex abuse cases in St. Paul
Updated: Apr 16
Theology professors at the University of St. Thomas have warned of a “pastoral breakdown” following sex abuse revelations in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. They said Archbishop John Nienstedt needs to take a series of bold new public steps to heal the wounds and salvage his own leadership role.
(UPDATE: See below Archbishop Nienstedt’s response to the letter, in which he said he has already taken many of the steps proposed by the theologians. He also asked those who signed the letter for a meeting and discussion.)
A sharply worded letter signed by 12 tenured members of the university’s theology department and delivered to Nienstedt on Saturday called on the archbishop to “leave the legal talk to the lawyers” and become more personally involved in rebuilding trust with the faithful of his archdiocese.
The letter suggested that Nienstedt begin the process of spiritual healing by leading a penitential liturgy, modeled on the late Pope St. John Paul II’s millennial apology for the past failings of the church.
At the same time, it said, the archbishop needs to communicate more directly about the scandal with the people and parishes under his care, and “make a fresh effort to listen to them.” Naming another committee or supervisory body to investigate the situation is not enough, it said.
“Trust within the Church and between the Church and the local community has been badly broken. Indeed, the office of Archbishop itself has been gravely damaged by the facts exposed in the lawsuits,” it said.
As part of the response, the theologians said, lay Catholics should be given more positions of responsibility in priestly formation, governance of the archdiocese and management of the scandal. They said the sex abuse revelations have shown that problems in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese are “systemic, the product of a long-standing and deeply entrenched clericalism that does not have to be the corollary of the ordained priestly ministry.”
The letter stopped short of calling for Nienstedt’s resignation, but said the archbishop could not recover trust without changing his approach. “We believe that without such public steps the pastoral state of the archdiocese is not sustainable,” it said.
The theology professors cited Pope Francis’ recent statement that a bishop is “not isolated, but with the church” and at the service of his flock.
“Recent events have shown how badly the pastoral leadership of the Archdiocese has failed to meet those expectations,” the letter said. It said the failures were not only in sexual abuse by priests, but also in how those scandals have been handled.
The letter noted the distinguished history of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, and stated: “The current crisis is a grave blot on that history. Legal action alone will not remove it.”
Archbishop Nienstedt has faced calls for resignation from some local priests, Catholic donors and news outlets following a series of accusations that he and his aides concealed sex abuse allegations about priests serving in the archdiocese.
Nienstedt has acknowledged making mistakes, and has accepted the recommendations of a task force that called for closer review and monitoring of clerical abuse. He said in July that the archdiocese is better able to deal with such cases today, and that he had no intention of resigning.
Archbishop Nienstedt has also been the subject of an internal church investigation regarding allegations that he engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with adult seminarians. Nienstedt has called the allegations “absolutely and entirely false.”
Those signing the letter represent most of the tenured St. Thomas theology faculty, and include department chair Bernard Brady; Massimo Faggioli, who has written extensively on the Second Vatican Council; Gerald Schlabach, a teacher of Christian ethics; and Michael J. Hollerich, an expert in early church history.
In a response released by the archdiocese Monday, Archbishop Nienstedt thanked the theologians but said he had already taken initiatives in the same direction as their suggestions.
Nienstedt said he recently announced a series of “healing Masses designed for all those who feel they have been hurt by the church.” In addition, he said, he has met with abuse victims and their families, has reached out to community and parish leaders to talk, and often spends weekends participating in unpublicized parish events.
As for an increased lay role, Nienstedt noted that the archdiocese recently hired Judge Timothy O’Malley as director of the newly created Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. The archbishop said the majority of his leadership team are lay people, and his primary advisors are all laity.
“I am very sorry for anything I or my predecessors have done to cause Catholics to doubt their faith or the sacred trust that is placed in Church leadership,” Nienstedt said. He added that he was “grateful” for the theologians’ advice.
“I’m thankful we share the same desire to help the Church and would welcome a meeting to discuss how we can work together to help bring the Word of God to His people,” he said.
Here is the text of the theologians’ letter:
Letter to the Archbishop of St. Paul – Minneapolis, the Most Reverend John Nienstedt and to the local Church:
“To the extent of their knowledge, competence or authority, the laity are entitled and sometimes duty-bound to express their opinion on matters which concern the good of the Church” (Vatican Council II, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”, Lumen Gentium, par. 37).
The people of God rightly expect bishops to be good stewards of the Lord’s household. As Pope Francis has said, “The bishop, as a witness of Christ, is not isolated, but with the Church . . . The episcopate is not for the bishop himself, but for the Church, for the flock, and for others” (Address to the Congregation for the Bishops, February 27, 2014). Recent events have shown how badly the pastoral leadership of the Archdiocese has failed to meet those expectations. We refer not only to the multi-faceted sexual abuse scandal itself but also to the manner in which these scandals have been handled.
The harm done affects first of all the victims themselves. But it touches the lives of all of us as members of the Church, including our efforts as professional theologians to represent the Catholic faith and the Catholic intellectual tradition in an honest and credible way to our students, their parents, our alumni, and our colleagues and friends. As theologians and educators, we offer proposals that may open a path toward recovery from the pastoral breakdown we are witnessing. We do so reluctantly and wish to emphasize that we remain committed to working and praying for the good of the whole archdiocese, including its pastoral leadership. We also want to recognize the criticisms and insights already offered by several of our women colleagues in their letter published on July 25, 2014.
Leave the legal talk to the lawyers; bring pastoral talk to the people. The Archdiocese is in a spiritual crisis as well as a legal crisis. The resolution of the legal actions now underway will not undo the spiritual damage. While we support the rights of the victims of sexual crimes to justice and hope that resolutions of the lawsuits will offer appropriate restitution that leads to their healing, we know that no legal decision will heal the damage done to the Body of Christ. A process of spiritual healing could begin within an appropriate liturgical setting and with you taking the initiative. Consider using the Rite of Reconciliation as a model for how this might be done in various places around the Archdiocese. Think about the example set by Pope St. John Paul II’s millennial apology for the failings of the Church. We believe that the people of the Archdiocese would welcome such gestures towards reconciliation.
Re-introduce yourself to the people and parishes that are our Archdiocese. Trust within the Church and between the Church and the local community has been badly broken. Indeed, the office of Archbishop itself has been gravely damaged by the facts exposed in the lawsuits. Announcing the creation of another committee or supervisory body can only go partway towards restoring that trust. We believe that restoring a trust worthy of your office will only come fully through your personal commitment to developing a more open and immediate relationship with people around the Archdiocese. You need to make a fresh effort to listen to them and to get to know them better – people from all walks of life, those who are already receptive to you and those who may not be.
Engage lay people in the important work of the Archdiocese. The current situation will not be improved without greater lay involvement in the Archdiocese. Lay people must be placed in positions of responsibility in priestly formation, in the governance of the Archdiocese, and especially in the management of the scandal. The harsh light now being shone on the inner governance of the Archdiocese makes clear that the problems are not merely personal. They are systemic, the product of a long-standing and deeply entrenched clericalism that does not have to be the corollary of the ordained priestly ministry.
We believe that without such public steps the pastoral state of the archdiocese is not sustainable. The Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has had a distinguished place in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. The current crisis is a grave blot on that history. Legal action alone will not remove it.
St. Paul, MN September 12, 2014
Signed by the following tenured members of the Theology Department of the University of St. Thomas:
Cara Anthony Bernard Brady Massimo Faggioli Paul Gavrilyuk Michael Hollerich John Martens Stephen McMichael Paul Niskanen David Penchansky Gerald Schlabach Ted Ulrich Paul Wojda
Here is the text of Archbishop Nienstedt’s response:
September 15, 2014
Dear Dr. Anthony, Dr. Brady, Dr. Faggioli, Dr. Gavrilyuk, Dr. Hollerich, Dr. Martens, Dr. McMichael, Dr. Niskanen, Dr. Penchansky, Dr. Schlabach, Dr. Ulrich, and Dr. Wojda,
Thank you for your recent letter with your proposals and suggestions. I appreciate your interest in helping people draw closer to Jesus Christ and I am grateful for your service to the students of the University of St. Thomas. I know that many have recently had difficult conversations with friends and family about why they still continue to profess their faith. I am very sorry for anything I or my predecessors have done to cause Catholics to doubt their faith or the sacred trust that is placed in Church leadership.
I am grateful, too, for your thoughtful advice and your willingness to share it. Please allow me to address the suggestions you listed:
• Leave the legal talk to the lawyers; bring pastoral talk to the people.
Many Catholics have shared with me the same pain you are describing, and I have taken the initiative to move in the direction you are suggesting. In last week’s issue of The Catholic Spirit is an article on the first of a series of healing Masses designed for all those who feel they have been hurt by the Church. We are working with local pastors to communicate the information about these Masses to the faithful. Here’s a link: http://thecatholicspirit.com/news/local-news/masses-healing-reconciliation-hope-offered-archdiocese.
The theme of healing and reconciliation is at the heart of these liturgies, which can provide powerful prayer experiences for those who have been wounded or those who know others who are suffering.
• Re-introduce yourself to the people and parishes that are our Archdiocese.
The reason I became a priest was to become involved in the lives of people, and I appreciate every opportunity I have to do so. I have met and continue to meet with victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse, their families and their friends. I am also reaching out to community leaders, ecumenical leaders and parish leaders to talk and learn about how we can be a part of the healing process. I often spend my weekends celebrating Mass at local parishes or going to community events. I have not publicized these events, but they are happening on a regular basis.
• Engage lay people in the important work of the Archdiocese.
I agree with this suggestion, and to that end we have most recently hired Judge Timothy O’Malley for the newly created position of Director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. Here’s a link to the story in The Catholic Spirit:
The fact of the matter is that the majority of my leadership team are lay people, a few of whom are not Catholic. Aside from our auxiliary bishops, Bishop Piché and Bishop Cozzens, and our vicar general, Fr. Lachowitzer, my primary advisors are all laity. In addition, lay people make up the majority of the boards that provide me with advice and consultation, and I do listen to them.
I’m thankful we share the same desire to help the Church and would welcome a meeting to discuss how we can work together to help bring the Word of God to His people. Please let me know if that would be of interest to you.
May God bless you and your ministry,
The Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt