(RNS) A Roman Catholic archbishop in Minnesota who had been one of the hierarchy’s most vocal opponents of gay rights is the target of an investigation into allegations that he had a series of sexual relationships with priests, seminarians and other men.
The archdiocese confirmed the investigation, which was first reported by Commonweal, a Catholic magazine based in New York.The investigation of Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt is being conducted by a prominent Minneapolis law firm hired by the archdiocese after church officials received an allegation against Nienstedt.
Nienstedt, 67, said in a separate statement that the allegations “are absolutely and entirely false” and he said he himself authorized the internal investigation, which he called “independent, thorough.”
“The allegations do not involve minors or lay members of the faithful, and they do not implicate any kind of illegal or criminal behavior,” Nienstedt said. “The allegations involve events alleged to have occurred at least a decade ago, before I began serving in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.”
Commonweal’s story cites Jennifer Haselberger, former top canon lawyer for Nienstedt, as saying she learned of the investigation when she was questioned by attorneys from the firm that the archdiocese hired, Greene Espel.
Nienstedt came under fire in September for allegedly failing to report or discipline clergy suspected of molesting children. Those allegations sparked ongoing criminal investigations. The allegations surfaced after Haselberger, who had resigned her post in frustration in April 2013, began leaking internal church documents that appeared to detail efforts to shield abusers.
One of Nienstedt’s top aides, the Rev. Peter Laird, quit. It later emerged that Laird did so after Nienstedt rebuffed his suggestion that the archbishop should resign.
But late last year, the archdiocese received an unrelated allegation that Haselberger said turned up other accusations against Nienstedt, who was ordained a priest in Detroit before becoming a bishop in Minnesota.
“Based on my interview with Greene Espel — as well as conversations with other interviewees — I believe the investigators have received about ten sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety on the part of the archbishop dating from his time as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as Bishop of New Ulm, and while coadjutor/archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” Haselberger told Commonweal
She added that “he also stands accused of retaliating against those who refused his advances or otherwise questioned his conduct.”
Contacted by email, Haselberger confirmed the magazine’s account.
In a written response to Commonweal, Nienstedt dismissed the charges as a “personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage.”
He said he also suspects that accusers are making claims because of “difficult decisions” he has made. He told the magazine he could not elaborate because of privacy laws.