The man who was at the helm of the Twin Cities Catholic church during the clergy abuse scandals is now officially banned from celebrating mass in his former archdiocese.
Former Archbishop John Nientstedt, who resigned from the archdiocese in 2015, is no longer free to “exercise public ministry” there, per an order from his successor, Archbishop Bernard Hebda.
The reason? Nienstedt is himself facing unresolved allegations of abuse involving minors.
According to a Friday announcement from Archbishop Hebda, the alleged incident is said to have occurred in 2005, when Nienstedt was bishop of New Ulm. He is alleged to have undressed in front of two “unaccompanied minors” in his hotel room at a World Youth Day event in Germany.
As the announcement points out, Nienstedt denies this ever happened.
However, he has also been accused of “inappropriate conduct with adult males,” and according to documents that surfaced in 2016, Neinstedt has been dogged by allegations from fellow priests and rumors of a “promiscuous gay lifestyle” for years.
In his letter, Hebda points out that “any effort by the Vatican” to address these latter allegations was suspended in 2015 when Nienstedt resigned, leaving the matter “unresolved for the accusers, for Archbishop Nienstedt and for the public.”
Hebda says he is “troubled by the failure to bring closure” to an investigation into the matter, and that he shares the frustration of all involved that the situation has been left in limbo.
The archbishop added that he believes “this situation highlights the need for a better-defined process and independent mechanism to resolve allegations made against bishops.”
Hebda’s Friday declaration, he points out, “is not intended to convey an indication or presumption of guilt,” which is true of all “similar cases involving our priests and deacons.”
Nienstedt’s current status
Earlier this year, Nienstedt stepped down from his consulting duties at the Napa Institute, a Catholic organization.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, the resignation came amid a wave of criticism against the Napa Institute for employing Nienstedt despite its “stance against bishops accused of mishandling sexual abuse.”
Indeed, Nienstedt was heavily criticized for his leadership during the high-profile sex abuse cases that rocked the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
When Maison Hullibarger died by suicide on Dec. 4, his parents — devout Catholics — began planning a funeral that would celebrate their 18-year-old son’s life.
He was a brother to five siblings, an athlete and teammate, a strong criminal justice student at the University of Toledo, and a passionate fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And because the priest at their Temperance, Mich., parish didn’t personally know their son, Jeffrey and Linda Hullibarger met with him before the funeral to discuss what they wanted in the homily.
The Hullibargers were detailed, they said, and Father Don LaCuesta took notes.
Instead, during the funeral at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, the Hullibargers listened from the pews as the priest spoke the word “suicide” six times. He told mourners, local media reported, that Maison may be denied admittance to heaven because of the way he died. LaCuesta wondered aloud, the Hullibargers said, if Maison had repented enough in the eyes of God.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘What is he doing?” Jeffrey said in an interview with the newspaper. “We didn’t ask for this.”
Eventually, Jeffrey decided to intervene and walked to the pulpit.
“Father,” he whispered, “Please stop.”
But LaCuesta kept going, the Hullibargers recounted in local news reports. When the service finally ended, they told the priest he was no longer welcome at Maison’s gravesite burial — where the teen’s family and friends decided to say everything LaCuesta hadn’t.
Now, the Hullibargers are calling for the priest’s removal, and generating enough discussion to warrant an apology from the Archdiocese of Detroit. In a statement to The Washington Post, archdiocese spokeswoman Holly Fournier said “an unbearable situation was made even more difficult, and we are sorry.”
LaCuesta will not be preaching at funerals “for the foreseeable future,” Fournier said, and he will have his other homilies reviewed by a priest mentor.
“We share the family’s grief at such a profound loss,” the archdiocese statement said. “Our hope is always to bring comfort into situations of great pain, through funeral services centered on the love and healing power of Christ. Unfortunately, that did not happen in this case.”
After “reflection,” according to the statement, the priest agreed that “the family was not served as they should have been served.”
Fournier said there are no current plans to remove or reassign LaCuesta from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, as the Hullibargers have requested. The statement did say that the priest was “willing to accept the assistance he needs in order to become a more effective minister in these difficult situations.”
“Father LaCuesta will be getting help from professionals to probe how and why he failed to effectively address the grief of the family in crisis,” Fournier said. “This will occur both on a human level (counseling) and a spiritual level (spiritual direction).”
For centuries, the Catholic Church has struggled with the religious implications, and societal stigma, of suicide. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the church began taking a more benign approach to suicide, allowing parishioners who had taken their own lives to receive a Catholic funeral and be buried on sacred ground in Catholic cemeteries. In the 1990s, Pope John Paul II approved the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which acknowledged — for the first time — that many people who die by suicide also suffer from mental illness
“Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide,” the catechism states. “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”
LaCuesta spoke to these points in his homily but failed to do so with appropriate sensitivity, the archdiocese said.
Though it has been decades since the church adopted a more compassionate view of suicide, there remains a disconnect between some outlier priests and their parishes. The Rev. Charles T. Rubey said he has seen it within the Archdiocese of Chicago and during his 40 years as director and founder of the LOSS program, Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide.
“There are still some priests who view suicide as a mortal sin,” Rubey said. “That has been categorically denied by church leadership.”
His work involves establishing support group meetings within Chicago-area parishes for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Rubey said he believes it is critical to the healing process for priests and church leaders to talk openly with parishioners and avoid fearmongering over the church’s view of suicide.
Priests “are in a position of power; people listen to them. They have a responsibility to give accurate information,” Rubey said. “Unfortunately, leaders in the church, they sometimes have very narrow and prejudiced views on suicide and mental illness. They don’t understand mental illness. That’s what we’re up against.”
Jeffrey Hullibarger told the Detroit Free Press that he feels removing LaCuesta is the only way to prevent the compounded grief at Maison’s funeral from happening to another family.
“We’re afraid that, like the Catholic church does, they’ll send him off and he’ll do it to somebody else,” Hullibarger told the newspaper.
At the end of the funeral, before their friends and family moved to the cemetery, Jeffrey and Linda Hullibarger stood before the church and spoke to those there to mourn their son — and remember his life.
“[Maison] has had great impact on the lives of many people,” Jeffrey said, according to the Toledo Blade. “He had a personality like no other, passionate and opinionated. That’s what we loved about him. Our family’s message today is please be kind to one another, reach out to those you care about, and show sincerity in your actions, and love forever unconditionally.”
It was a list Charles L. Bailey Jr. had wanted to see for years: the names of the priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Mr. Bailey, 67, a longtime local advocate for survivors of abuse by priests, had heard excuses for why such a list was impossible to release. The last bishop said naming accused priests would be a violation of the Ten Commandments. The current bishop said he would not disclose the names, citing the request of unnamed victims.
But then on Dec. 3, Mr. Bailey got a call from a local reporter. It was up, on the diocesan website. Fifty-seven priests. None were still in ministry and most were deceased, including, there on Page 4, the priest who had repeatedly raped Mr. Bailey when he was not yet a teenager.
As the Catholic Church faces a wave of federal and state attorney general investigations into its handling of sex abuse, bishops around the country have struggled with how to react. Some have locked down defensively. Others are waiting on guidance from the Vatican, which instructed American bishops last month to wait on taking any collective action until the new year.
But dozens of bishops have decided to take action by releasing lists of the priests in their dioceses who were credibly accused of abuse. And they are being released at an unprecedented pace.
The disclosures have trickled out week by week — 10 names in Gaylord, Mich.; 28 in Las Cruces, N.M.; 28 in Ogdensburg, N.Y.; 15 in Atlanta; 34 in San Bernardino, Calif., among many others. All 15 dioceses in Texas have agreed to release lists. Last week, the leaders of two major Jesuit provinces, covering nearly half of the states, released the names of more than 150 members of the order “with credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor.”
“We’ve never seen this kind of outpouring before,” said Terry McKiernan, co-director and president of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks clergy sex abuse cases.
By his count, at least 35 dioceses have released lists or updates of previous lists since the beginning of August. That nearly doubles the number that had ever been released before, since the first one in 2002 by the Diocese of Tucson.
“It’s a dramatic change in how bishops are approaching this,” Mr. McKiernan said.
Many of the priests named on the lists are dead, but not all. Many had already been known as abusers, but scores of names are new, even to activists who have been closely following the church abuse scandals for years. Among the known allegations, many of the cases date back generations.
But few of the lists provide details about the allegations themselves, including when they occurred or how many victims were affected.
Some victims, as they comb through the lists, say there are names missing. Others see reason for distrust in the fact that the church had names to release at all, nearly two decades after claiming the sexual abuse scandals introduced a new era of transparency.
The lists are coming in the wake of an explosive grand jury report released in August by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, detailing at grim length the abuse of over 1,000 people by hundreds of priests. Investigations have followed in more than a dozen states.
“Names coming out this way,” Mr. McKiernan said of the voluntary releases, “is really different from the way they came out in the grand jury report.”
The scope of the federal investigation remains unclear. Last month, William M. McSwain, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sent a request to every Roman Catholic diocese in the United States not to destroy documents related to the handling of child sexual abuse.
Still, if releasing the lists was meant to defuse the anger of the church’s critics, there is little evidence it has done that.
Sign Up for On Politics With Lisa Lerer
A spotlight on the people reshaping our politics. A conversation with voters across the country. And a guiding hand through the endless news cycle, telling you what you really need to know.
In Syracuse, Mr. Bailey said that he had already received calls from victims who said their abusers were not on the list. The name of the priest who had raped Mr. Bailey was listed in a section for clergy who “were deceased at the time of the reporting of the allegation,” a claim he said was contradicted by some of the priest’s abuse victims.
“There’s no credibility,” said Mr. Bailey, head of the local chapter of S.N.A.P., the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “I thought it was going to be more gobbledygook and that’s just what it is.”
The Diocese of Syracuse said it had heard from people who were unhappy with the list’s release and others who were grateful.
“It is not surprising that there are mixed reactions to the list as it was and continues to be a divisive issue,” said Danielle Cummings, the chancellor and director of communications for the Syracuse diocese. She said the list was put together from a comprehensive review of allegations of abuse going back 70 years, but added: “If there is a name that individuals believe should be on the list, they can bring it forward to the diocese or the District Attorney.”
With no central reporting system and given the movement of priests around dioceses, it is hard to judge how comprehensive the lists may be, even by comparing them with previously disclosed numbers.
In Buffalo, a former assistant to the local bishop came forward to say that the list released by the diocese, with 42 names, was far shorter than the dioceses’ internal list, which had more than 100 names. Sexual abuse victims in Rockford, Ill., said the names of their abusers were nowhere on the list released there.
Among a laity distrustful of the church’s handling of sex abuse, there is a widespread sentiment that the only way to get the truth is through the subpoena power of law enforcement.
“The civil court system, that’s the new way the Holy Spirit moves,” said Patrick Wall, a former priest and canon lawyer who now works on behalf of abuse victims.
Advocacy groups suggest that bishops could invite the authorities to pore through all of a diocese’s files. Or the authorities could come in uninvited, as was the case when dozens of federal and local agents conducted a surprise search of the offices of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston last month.
Yet civil authorities have limits, too, as was made clear in a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In a Dec. 3 opinion, the court agreed with a group of unnamed priests who argued that the grand jury report did not allow them their right of due process to submit evidence and arguments in their defense. Their names remain redacted in the report.
The bishops who are trying to compile their own lists are wrestling with some of the same issues.
At a meeting of bishops in Baltimore in November, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, of Springfield, Ill., told his fellow bishops it was not as simple as deciding that an allegation was credible, or not credible. He asked: What if a priest was accused 20 years ago, but the diocesan review board that was supposed to judge the case never came to a conclusion?
“If it was inconclusive 20 years ago, it’s still inconclusive,” he said, “and I hesitate to come down on one side of that.”
In an interview this week, Bishop Christopher Coyne of the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., said he had long considered the downsides of lists like these greater than their upsides. No one was ever satisfied with them.
“If you had asked me a year ago if I were going to publish a list, I would have said no,” Bishop Coyne said.
But the times have changed. In September, a joint state and local law enforcement task force began looking at allegations of severe abuse decades ago at a Catholic-run orphanage in the Burlington diocese. The diocese says it is cooperating; officials are in the offices every week.
Since early November, a board of lay people, chaired by a non-Catholic, has been coming to the diocesan offices to examine files relating to accused priests. The board is expected to produce a list of names by the end of the year.
The mistrust underlying all this was earned, Bishop Coyne said. The bishops had proven over the last two decades that they had not been able to police themselves. But given the current atmosphere, self-policing might not be an option any more.
“Now I have a reason,” Bishop Coyne said of pushing for the publication of a list. “The list is going to get published anyway.”
Cardinal George Pell, the third-ranking official in the Catholic Church, has been convicted in Australia on charges related to the sexual abuse of two choir boys in the 1990s, TheDaily Beast reported Tuesday.
Pell, the Church’s finance chief and the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to be tried for sexual abuse, left Rome in June 2017 to stand trial in Melbourne. A judge granted the prosecutor’s request for a gag order ahead of the trial in order to “prevent a real and substantial risk of prejudice to the proper administration of justice.”
Two choir boys accused Pell of abusing them in a backroom at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where they sang, when he was the archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.
Pell is due to be tried again in the coming months for allegedly abusing two other boys at a swimming pool in Victoria in the 1970s, when he was a priest there, according to the Guardian.
The Australian Daily Telegraph hinted at the Tuesday verdict on its homepage while mocking that country’s censorship rules, which prevent the details of criminal proceedings from being made public.
The verdict comes at the end of a year rife with reports of widespread sexual misconduct by members of the Catholic clergy. A Pennsylvania grand-jury report released in August exposed the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by 301 priests in Pennsylvania churches over 70 years.
Following the release of the report, Pope Francis asked Catholics to forgive the Church’s failure to confront the “culture of death” fostered by predatory clergy.
Brian Christensen is on his way to jail again. A clerical collar around his thin neck, rosary dangling from the rearview mirror, the priest sets out on the same trip he has taken almost every day that week. First was Monday afternoon, when he followed the detectives down this road, then up to the third floor of the police department, where he waited outside the interrogation room. On Wednesday, he went to the preliminary hearing, where the felony charges were announced: two counts of sexual contact with a 13-year-old. On Thursday, and on Friday, he returned to arrange a visitation with the Rev. John Praveen, 38, whom he last saw being cuffed and led into a police car, and who is now being held on a $100,000 cash bond and facing 30 years in prison.
Now, Monday again, Christensen pulls out of the parking lot at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where as lead pastor he oversaw Praveen’s clerical duties. He makes the five-minute drive to the Pennington County jail, where he plans to speak with the incarcerated priest for the first time since his arrest.
“Aren’t you tired of all this?” his mother asked him on the phone that morning, and he could only sigh and say, yes, “I am tired of this.”
This: a string of child sex abuse scandals that – spanning decades, continents and thousands of victims – has fundamentally altered how the world views the Catholic Church and priests like him, in particular. With every crisis, Christensen had allowed himself to hope that now, perhaps, it would be over, only to see another year like this one, when every day seems to bring news of sex crimes and cover-ups in the church. A grand jury report in Pennsylvania accused more than 300 priests of abusing about 1,000 children, spurring federal authorities to investigate. Two U.S. cardinals have been disgraced. And approval ratings for Pope Francis, who once was the world’s most popular leader, have plummeted among Americans.
But far beneath those headlines are churches like Christensen’s, where the same themes that have come to define the scandal at large – betrayal, hypocrisy, abuse of power, defensiveness – are playing out in a microcosm.
Ever since police arrested Praveen, who has pleaded not guilty, Christensen’s thoughts have been dominated by the same conflicts, the same questions. He believes it’s his responsibility as a Catholic leader to find a way to forgive sins, but could he this time? Already, he’d faced his flock once at weekend Mass, where he’d struggled to explain the unexplainable, but how does he steward the faith of thousands in a church beset by crisis? And how does he protect his own?
Christensen, 53, parks his Ford SUV near the jail. He kills the engine. He thinks about the day he became a priest, about two decades ago, and how he imagined his life would be. This is not a day he envisioned. “Priests go visit people in prison,” he says aloud. “They don’t visit priests in prison.”
He climbs out, a tall, graceful man with hair as trim as it was during his military days. He walks past the mirrored glass in the jail lobby, then to a chair in front of a monitor and a phone. The monitor screen says that his appointment is beginning and that the call is being recorded. The lights on either side of the monitor come on. He picks up the phone.
“Come on, Father John,” he says and waits for the priest to arrive.
Two days before this jail visit, back at the cathedral, Christensen had stepped out of the confessional. Feeling harried, he’d looked at his watch. It was 4:18 p.m. on a Saturday. The confessions that afternoon had gone way over schedule, and now little more than an hour remained until the weekend’s first Mass, barely enough time to plan how he would address what had become the most wrenching and complicated episode of his life as a priest.
To Christensen, the stakes were clear. No other major religion in the United States had lost more adherents than Catholicism over the past two decades. The combination of rapid social change, rigid church doctrine and a steady accumulation of clergy sex abuse scandals had plunged the church into turmoil. Millions of Americans raised Catholic – 41 percent of them, according to the Pew Research Center – no longer identified themselves that way.
The losses were steepest in the Northeast and the Midwest, once the center of the Catholic life in America, and among whites. Those descriptions characterized almost all of the 1,400 families in Christensen’s congregation, some of whom he wasn’t sure would, despite everything, still come to Mass and hear his homily.
He’d stepped into his office, trying to expel the freneticism of that week – the wedding receptions, church retreats and trips back and forth to jail – and brought out two notepads, a pen and a book of exegesis. He headed to the place where he did all of his best thinking. Inside, the chapel smelled of incense. It was quiet except for the sound of thin Bible pages being turned in prayer.
He knelt, hunched his shoulders over a pew and lowered his head into his hands.
He’d always wanted to say, “Not on my watch,” and that was how it had been at his parish. Even if the kids complained or the courses seemed repetitive, he’d demanded biannual abuse training for children so they could recognize what it would mean to be touched inappropriately. In every church bathroom hung laminated signs encouraging victims of clergy abuse to “speak out.” But now, a scandal he’d once associated with faraway Boston or Milwaukee had arrived here, too. And it hadn’t just allegedly happened on his watch but inside the cathedral itself, down in the basement, on a late September day when hundreds of people, including him, were at the church. And none of them had any idea.
He’d made the sign of the cross, picked up a notepad and started writing.
The first time he heard about child sex abuse in the church was when he was at seminary in Winona, Minnesota. It was 1995, and he met a reporter who was asking seminarians what it was like to enter the church at a time when pedophilia allegations were roiling parishes in Ireland and Austria. The question startled him. What abuse? In his whole life – from ringing bells as a Long Island altar boy, to escaping to chapel during morning marches at the U.S. Air Force Academy, to his growing church involvement while flying B-1 bombers – he’d never seen anything remotely approaching abuse.
Christensen sat back in the chapel pew, wrote the words, “What do we do?” and underlined them twice.
His faith in the clergy, then so strong, began to waver only after he put on the collar. He witnessed one elderly priest get too “chummy” with boys – crude conversations, too much time together at the rectory – and ultimately reported him to church leaders. He watched a South Dakota priest be removed because of abuse allegations. And then in 2005, he got his first solo pastoral assignment. It was a small church in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, where a priest had abused children in the 1980s and early 1990s. On Sundays, Christensen noticed an absence of 30-something men in the pews. And soon people were telling him that the priest had abused them, too, and that, no, they didn’t want it reported, they just wanted him to know that it was true, that it had happened.
He closed his notebooks, shut his eyes and thought about the conversations he’d been having since Praveen’s arrest.
“I was raised Catholic,” one recently returned parishioner, Leslie Bostick, told him over lunch about her mind-set when she abandoned the church following an earlier abuse scandal. “This [sex abuse] issue came up, and it bothered me, and I stopped. . . . I would never go to confession. I felt like, ‘Why should I confess my sins to someone who has committed a crime?’ ”
Joe Carlin, 78, told him over coffee on another day: “I would not admit to people that I’m a Catholic right now if they’re not Catholic.”
“Do you feel uncomfortable wearing that?” another woman, who declined to give her name, citing the sensitivity of her work with sex abuse survivors, had asked of his clerical clothing while at a church retreat.
“I don’t, but, you know, um, no, I don’t,” he’d replied, fumbling, because it was a question he’d asked of himself before, and sometimes he didn’t know the answer. Some emotions were easier. He felt angry – angry that pedophile priests had been shuffled from parish to parish. He felt frustrated. Why all of the church secrecy? Why the sealed court cases, the priests quietly retired, the accusers silenced with confidentiality agreements? And sometimes, most painful of all, he felt betrayed.
He had sacrificed his life to become a priest, a decision that hadn’t been easy. It was only in August 1993 that, after years of thinking about it, he saw a processional for Pope John Paul II while flying over Denver. In that moment, he heard God’s voice – the clearest it had ever been – telling him he belonged down there, with them. He soon gave up his military career, and the possibility of marriage and a family, and now to have this act of service become so twisted in people’s minds? To have someone ask if he was uncomfortable wearing his clerical clothing, when he should feel only pride? It hurt to think about it.
He’d stood and, smoothing out the folds of that clothing, stepped out of the chapel, having decided what he would say during his homily. He looked out into the main church hall.
Ten minutes until the service. Hundreds of people already in the pews. All eyes on him.
Days later now, at the jail again, John Praveen’s face appears on the computer monitor against a backdrop of white walls, closed doors and a stairway leading out of the camera frame. It is a face that looks swollen, unshaven, on the verge of crying. Christensen stares at it, blinking in disbelief, before he speaks.
Every day since his arrest, he has thought about talking with Praveen and all of the questions he wanted to ask him. Everything that had happened that week still didn’t make any sense to Christensen, who couldn’t, no matter how hard he tried, square the man he had thought Praveen was with the man the police say he is.
He first heard of Praveen shortly before he moved to South Dakota last November from Hyderabad, India, to help fill the Rapid City Diocese’s shortage of priests. Praveen arrived at the cathedral in June, carrying himself with a childlike earnestness that almost everyone found disarming. He wanted to put every parishioner’s birthday in the church bulletin. He asked if he could redecorate the church’s understated altar with bright purples and blues. He followed church staff members around, repeatedly asking if they needed help with anything. “Always had a smile on his face,” said Margaret Jackson, a parishioner who took him out to an Indian restaurant days before his arrest.
On a Sunday afternoon three months after Praveen arrived, a local family reported to police allegations against him – details of which are under court seal – and the next day, investigators were at the cathedral. They said they wanted to talk to Praveen, not at the cathedral, but back at the station. Christensen followed them, then waited outside the interrogation room for more than an hour, counting tiles, praying, until the door opened. Praveen came out. His eyes were red. His hair, normally combed, was a ruffled mess. Disbelief was on his face. A detective took Christensen aside and told him. Praveen had been accused of sexually abusing a child. Christensen felt numb, then drove back to the cathedral in near silence with Praveen, who immediately went to his room, where he sat awake with the lights on all night.
The next day, after the police had again come to the cathedral, after Christensen had asked Praveen to change so he wouldn’t be seen cuffed in his clerical clothes, after police had photographed a classroom in the cathedral’s basement, Christensen got online. He wanted to inform the cathedral’s few Facebook followers of all the information he had, but many already had found out from the police on social media everything they needed to know.
“Is it just me, or is the vast majority of these cases that we continue to hear about, involve Catholic priests?!” one person wrote in response to the police department’s Facebook post.
“NEVER go to a Catholic Church,” another person said.
That type of reaction, the absolutism of it, was perhaps most upsetting of all to Christensen. He knew there were abusive priests, but the messy reality was that most weren’t. In fact, he’d come to see clergy members as no more likely to be sexual predators than people in other professions with access to children. Some studies, including a report in 2004 by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, put the number of sexual abusers among priests at about 4 percent, roughly consistent with clergymen of other faiths. Other organizations, including BishopAccountability.org, placed it at just under 6 percent. Anne Barrett Doyle, the organization’s co-director, says it may be shown to be higher still – especially if authorities compel transparency.
And what to do about the priests who abuse? How to balance the secular need for punishment with the Catholic command to forgive? Could anger and compassion coexist?
Now staring at Praveen, who is wiping his eyes and sniffling, speaking so mutedly that he’s barely intelligible, Christensen can’t help but feel sympathy, perhaps not as much as he has for the victim and her family, but sympathy nonetheless.
He leans forward, presses the phone tightly to his ear.
“Father John, how are you?” he says softly.
He decides not to ask the questions most on his mind.
“Did you know that you can get e-mails?”
He decides not to ask about either of the dates listed on Praveen’s charging document, Sept. 3 and Sept. 28, both of which were days the two priests had spent together. The first had been Labor Day, when they’d gone to a barbecue at the home of a local Catholic. Christensen didn’t see the girl there, but he did see Praveen play cornhole for hours and hours. And the second date had been the day of a ceremony at the cathedral, attended by hundreds, to honor an Italian saint, and Christensen had urged Praveen, during lunch, to try some American food for once.
“What do you need?”
He will not ask how, if the allegations are true, Praveen could have possibly toggled, on both of those days, in two separate locations, between his festivities with congregants and his abuse of the same child, and without anyone noticing. (The girl’s parents have not returned multiple requests for comment.)
“You have the Bible there? You have the rosary?”
And he will not ask what he most wanted to, a question that he repeated with parishioners during a moment of exasperation and frustration days earlier: How could Praveen have done this to them, to the Church?
Instead, he will say this:
“Many, many people are praying for you.”
“We’re trying to help. We’re trying to help.”
“Let’s say a prayer.”
Christensen lowers his head and closes his eyes. Praveen does the same.
“We ask for a particular blessing upon Father John,” Christensen says. “God bless you, with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Christensen hangs up the phone, the light turns off, and Praveen’s face disappears.
Enveloped in robes of green and gold, holding the Book of the Gospels high above his head, Christensen had stared straight at the cathedral’s altar and slowly walked toward it. The opening hymn had started. The congregants had stood. He knew he had to be strong for this. He was the face of the parish. He was the representation of the priesthood. He couldn’t waver, not with so many looking to him for answers.
Christensen came to the lectern. He looked out at the hundreds of people below, barely an empty pew in sight, and glanced down at his notes. For days, he had asked where God had been in all of this, and he thought he finally had his answer. One of this week’s readings described how Jesus’s suffering had made him perfect, empathetic to the struggles of mortal life because those struggles had once been his, too. So maybe the embarrassment and shame they felt now – their own suffering – wasn’t without value. Maybe it could make them stronger. Like Jesus.
He looked up.
“Jesus knew suffering in so many ways. . . . Today, we as a parish family are suffering,” he said, his words slowing as he spoke, echoing faintly off the marble walls and stained-glass windowpanes. “Suffering because our brother has been arrested. A child and a family are suffering. The church, the body of Christ, our parish community of the cathedral is suffering. A priest. A priest. A brother priest and, in some ways, all priests are suffering.”
He paused for a long moment.
“Father John was arrested on Tuesday morning,” he said.
There was the sound of hundreds of lungs filling with a sharp inhalation of breath. Christensen glanced down, then up again and continued.
“. . . sexual contact with a minor . . . ”
A man slowly turned the gold wedding band on his finger.
“. . . under the cloud of this abuse . . . ”
A woman put her hand over her mouth.
“. . . many thoughts, many feelings . . . anger, frustration, confusion, bewilderment . . .”
On and on he went, solemnly, about how prayer was needed for the accused and the accuser, how this didn’t represent the priesthood. He did not bristle with anger or speak in disgust. There were no echoes of the new calls to end the vow of celibacy or grant women more power. He did not apologize, on behalf of the Catholic Church or on behalf of himself, even if the abuse allegedly had happened on his watch, because he didn’t know what to apologize for. And as he stood outside in the misting cold of that evening, greeting parishioners as they exited Mass, it didn’t seem as though they had expected these things of him.
“Thank you, Father,” a man said, quickly shaking his hand and leaving.
“Thank you, Father,” another man said.
“Good sermon, Father,” someone else offered.
Since the days of the first major scandal in the American church, in 2002, some have predicted that Catholics would abandon the church in revulsion. But while many have left, the primary reason, according to Pew research in 2010, was the conservatism of church teachings, not the sex abuse crises. “None of them were shaken by it” was how Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, characterized 80 or so Catholics he interviewed in 2003. Another researcher, Michele Dillon of the University of New Hampshire, while wondering whether this time will be different, said Catholics have gotten past previous crises through “compartmentalization,” taking what they feel is valuable from the church and ignoring the rest.
This has extended even to survivors of sexual abuse, and their families, whose personal traumas are exacerbated by church scandals but who nonetheless don’t lose faith in Catholicism and the church, a reaction Christensen had encountered before and, to his surprise, was seeing again tonight.
“My daughter was 4,” one woman, Lisa Krogman, told him of the day-care abuse. “We have been through hell and back. . . . The thing I finally said to her was we can’t walk with this crutch. . . . We can let God have it and let it go. And so that’s what we did.”
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” another middle-aged woman, who declined to give her name to protect her daughters’ privacy, said to him next about the repercussions of abuse. “My girls still suffer to this day because of what happened to them. It’s horrible, but I don’t know exactly what happened to this girl.”
What Christensen did know about the girl: that her alleged encounters with Praveen had left her so shaken that she quickly told her parents what had happened, and they believed her. He knew that, within two days of it being reported, Praveen was in jail, and that the system had seemed to work as well as it could, even if it had failed so many other times. And he would soon know, but not yet, that the girl’s family would be back at the church within days of Praveen’s arrest, along with the girl herself, all of them participating in Mass, and that they would return again the week after that. He would shake his head, marveling at it. “A testimony of their own faith,” he would say.
For now, in the calm following Mass, in this obscure corner of a global crisis consuming the church, he thought about the faith of those less devout. The coming weeks would be difficult. There would be Praveen’s criminal arraignment. Possibly even a trial. More headlines in the Rapid City Journal. The cathedral could well lose people over this. But that, at least, was for later.
He went to the back of the cathedral. He took off his heavy robes. He breathed in and closed his eyes.