Monday, June 15, 2015

In Twin Cities, A Clean Sweep – Amid Scandal, Archbishop and Auxiliary Take the Fall

After two years of damning charges and revelations on several misconduct-related fronts, the Pope has moved on the beleaguered Twin Cities church with a historic wipeout of its top leadership.

At Roman Noon this Monday, the Holy See announced that Francis had accepted the resignations of both Archbishop John Nienstedt of St Paul and Minneapolis (above) and his senior auxiliary, Bishop Lee Piché, an unprecedented joint ouster coming just ten days after Minnesota's lead diocese was hit with six criminal charges of child endangerment in the case of Curtis Wehmeyer, a laicized cleric who admitted to abusing three boys in 2012 after years of concerns raised to archdiocesan officials over his conduct.

With Rome unprepared to name a new archbishop immediately, the Vatican likewise revealed that Coadjutor-Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Newark – Francis' first top-level US appointee, and a figure widely admired for his mix of administrative skill, pastoral heart and an unimpeachable integrity – had been named apostolic administrator of the 825,000-member archdiocese, entrusted with the full powers of the archbishop until a permanent successor can emerge. Among other imminent challenges the archdiocese faces include the fallout of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, another year remaining in the Minnesota "window" law which has suspended the statute of limitations for the filing of civil sex-abuse cases, the court process for the criminal charges and a state of morale among priests and people that's said to have left the local church "paralyzed."

In brief statements released upon Rome's announcement, both Nienstedt, 68, and Piché, 57 – who became the archbishop's top deputy shortly after Nienstedt's 2008 succession – spoke of a need for the archdiocese to move forward.

"My leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of [the] Church and those who perform them," the archbishop said, adding that he left office "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."

For his part, Piché – a Columbia graduate who, before serving as auxiliary and vicar-general, was Wehmeyer's pastor in the abuser's first assignment – conceded that "the people of the archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis need healing and hope. I was getting in the way of that, and so I had to resign."

Notably, the move comes as the Twin Cities presbyterate begins their annual convocation in Rochester, some 90 miles south of the archdiocese's hub. In a letter to the priests obtained by his former canonical Chancellor, Jennifer Haselberger – whose whistle-blowing on the Chancery's handling of cases in late 2013 sparked the long-simmering tumult – Nienstedt relayed that he "would have preferred to share this with you in person, but the desire of the Holy See to announce this made it impossible to wait until [the Rochester gathering] to tell you."

At this point, it is unclear what drove the Vatican to determine that the positions of both the archbishop and his lead auxiliary had become untenable. Beyond the corporate charges and the ongoing civil litigation over the abuse cases, Nienstedt – whose outspoken conservatism made him a polarizing figure in the archdiocese since his 2007 arrival – was likewise the subject of a Chancery-sponsored probe last year by a private law firm over allegations of misconduct with adult males. No conclusions of the latter process have emerged.

In any case, a top-tier push to bring a resolution to the situation became apparent last week at the USCCB June meeting in St Louis, as several senior officials – including the Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and the conference's general secretary, Msgr Ronny Jenkins – were seen huddled in conversations late last Tuesday with the Twin Cities' junior auxiliary, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, while a relaxed-looking Nienstedt (in shirtsleeves without his clerical collar) holed up across the Hyatt lobby with the bench's vice-president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, whose longstanding close ties to Hebda from their days as priests of Pittsburgh would indicate his role as a likely architect of the striking arrangement that's seen the Jersey archbishop shipped in to begin containing the fiasco.

Currently the chair of the bishops' committee on canonical affairs and church governance, before his 2010 appointment as bishop of Gaylord in northern Michigan, Hebda (above, with Francis) served as the #3 official at the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, the Holy See's clearinghouse for juridical questions. Known universally as "Bernie" and just as well-regarded among clerics and layfolk alike, the incoming administrator's easygoing, unpretentious style conceals a considerable CV: degrees from Harvard, Columbia Law and the Gregorian, a chaplain to Blessed Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity as well as a years-long assignment as the lead canonist guiding the global Caritas federation of the church's charitable agencies through the recent daunting revision of its statutes.

In 2013, the new Pope shocked most observers by tapping the then 54 year-old as archbishop-in-waiting of the 1.4 million-member Newark church, one of the US' ten largest, amid controversy over Archbishop John Myers' handling of the case of Michael Fugee, a priest found to be working with young people despite a history of misconduct.

Keeping to his usual earthy ways, Hebda chose to live in a chaplain's room in the dorms at the diocesan-owned Seton Hall University, where he regularly celebrates the 10pm Sunday liturgy for students. As one colleague of the archbishop's from Hebda's former side-role as a spiritual director at the Pontifical North American College recently said of the prelate, "Our Lady of Humility" – the NAC's historic patron – "has her arms wrapped all around him."

While Hebda could theoretically be tapped as the next Twin Cities' archbishop, such a move would ostensibly be unlikely, even if it would hearken back to the early 1990s strategy (employed in Atlanta and Santa Fe) of initially "test-piloting" a potential successor as administrator of a scandal-scarred archdiocese before giving him the permanent appointment. If anything, with the coadjutor perceived as being largely kept to a backseat role in the operations of the considerably larger Newark church, the Twin Cities arrangement allows Hebda a role for his gifts to be employed to their fullest extent over the remaining 13 months before Myers reaches the retirement age of 75 in late July 2016. (Himself a onetime coadjutor for three years in his native Peoria, Myers has resolutely declined to cede Newark's governance to his successor any earlier than required by the canons.)

In a signal of the rapid execution of the move, the newly-named administrator was not present at a morning press conference outside the Twin Cities Chancery, which was instead led by Cozzens, 47, who has handled the archdiocese's public messaging over recent months given the scrutiny facing both Nienstedt and Piché.

In his own statement as a nearby bell tolled, the auxiliary said that the long season of scandal "has been a painful process. A change in leadership provides us an opportunity for greater healing and the ability to move forward.

"Archbishop Hebda and I will work closely to bring our archdiocese into a new day," he said, "so that the work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ which we have done here for almost 165 years may continue."

Beyond the local ramifications, Nienstedt's resignation brings a premature end to his three-year term as chair of the USCCB's doctrine committee, which was slated to pass in November to one of his closest friends, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit.

With today's ground-shift, four US dioceses stand vacant (the others being Superior, Salt Lake City and a likewise reeling Kansas City), with just three others – Memphis, Cajun Louisiana's Lafayette diocese and Long Island's 1.5 million-member Rockville Centre church – led by a bishop serving past the retirement age.

SVILUPPO (Tuesday, 16 June – 7.30am): Having kept a prior commitment Monday night in his native Pittsburgh to deliver a (livetweeted) talk for the diocese's clergy and lay ministers on "Leadership with the Heart of Christ," Hebda will arrive in the Twin Cities this morning to begin his work. Between meetings with senior staff and travel to the priests' convocation in Rochester, no press conference or other public appearances are expected.

For now, how the apostolic administrator will juggle his schedule between Newark and the temporary assignment remains unclear, as does whether (or who) Hebda will appoint as his delegate to oversee the day-to-day operations of the St Paul Chancery. Under the norms of the canons, all of the archdiocese's vicars lost their offices with Nienstedt's resignation, and may not function in the sede vacante unless and until they receive reappointment from Hebda.