By David Gibson
The Vatican on Monday (June 15) launched a major housecleaning of the scandal-plagued Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, accepting the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt along with that of Nienstedt’s top aide, Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché.
The moves come little over a week after authorities charged the archdiocese for failing to protect children from an abusive priest and days after Pope Francis unveiled the first-ever system for disciplining bishops who do not act against predator clerics.
In April, Bishop Robert Finn of Missouri, who three years earlier became the first bishop convicted of failing to report a priest suspected of child abuse, was forced to resign, effectively the first bishop in the decades-long crisis to lose his job for covering up for an abuser.
Observers say this latest move seems to signal an unprecedented effort by Rome to hold bishops accountable in the abuse crisis.
Almost from the time he took over in the Twin Cities in 2008, Nienstedt, 68, became a polarizing figure as an outspoken conservative, especially with his focus against gay rights and same-sex marriage.
But in the past few years questions about his alleged failures to take a hardline on abusive clerics, especially a former priest not in jail, Curtis Wehmeyer, have made him a target of criticism from all sides.
Persistent questions about Nienstedt’s own personal conduct also became an issue; last year Nienstedt gave Piché, 57, the job of investigating allegations of misconduct against him, one of two separate probes of Nienstedt’s personal behavior.
In charging the archdiocese earlier this month, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said prosecutors were alleging “a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior” over the course of decades at the highest level of leadership in the archdiocese.
Nienstedt was not personally charged, but authorities said the investigation was continuing and further charges could be filed.
Francis appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who is currently in New Jersey preparing to take over the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., next year when Archbishop John Myers is expected to retire, as the interim leader in Minneapolis-St. Paul until a permanent replacement is found.
A brief note from the Vatican provided no details on Nienstedt’s resignation. It said only that he resigned under under the provision of canon law that states that a bishop “who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.”
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