The Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis and a deputy bishop resigned on Monday after prosecutors recently charged the archdiocese with having failed to protect youths from abuse by pedophile priests.
In statements released Monday morning, the archbishop, John C. Nienstedt, and an auxiliary bishop, Lee A. Piché, said they were resigning to help the archdiocese heal.
“My leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of His Church and those who perform them,” Archbishop Nienstedt said. “Thus my decision to step down.”
The resignations come about 10 days after prosecutors in Minnesota filed criminal charges against the archdiocese for its mishandling of repeated complaints of sexual misconduct against a priest and a few days after the Vatican announced the formation of a tribunal to hear cases against bishops accused of neglecting or covering up abuse cases — an unprecedented mechanism but one whose details are yet unknown.
“This has been a painful process,” The Rev. Andrew Cozzens, an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese who will remain in his post, said during a news conference. “A change in leadership offers us an opportunity for greater healing and the ability to move forward.”
Under Pope Francis, the Vatican has begun to step up efforts to hold bishops accountable for covering up or failing to take action against priests accused of abuse. Abuse survivors had long said that this was the great unfinished piece of business in the three decades since the abuse scandal first became public with a notorious case in Louisiana. Victims over the years have accused the Vatican of allowing prelates to go unpunished, and so turned to civil and criminal courts to pursue charges.
In accepting the resignations, the pope appointed the Rev. Bernard A. Hebda, an assistant archbishop of Newark, as apostolic administrator to oversee the archdiocese. The Vatican also announced on Monday that it would open a trial in July of its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Jozef Wesolowski, on charges of sexually abusing boys while he served in the Caribbean and of possessing child pornography after he was sent back to Rome in 2013.
In Rome, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said he did not know whether the two bishops, by resigning, had avoided a trial by the new tribunal.
Archbishop Nienstedt is stepping down two months after the resignation of Bishop Robert W. Finn in Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri, where he had weathered years of controversy over his handling of a priest convicted of taking pornographic photographs of young girls. Archbishop Finn was himself convicted on a misdemeanor charge of failing to report the priest — the first bishop convicted in the abuse scandal’s long history.
They are hardly the first bishops to resign under scrutiny or accusations that they failed abuse victims. Since the papacy of John Paul II — now St. John Paul — 16 other bishops have resigned or been forced from office under a cloud of accusations that they mishandled abuse cases, according to research by BishopAccontability.org, an advocacy group based in Boston. Archbishop Nienstedt is the 17th, by that group’s count.
Archbishop Nienstedt had become one of the most embattled figures in the American Catholic hierarchy, under fire in the courts, in the pews and on newspaper editorial pages. He had refused to resign about a year ago after coming under sharp criticism from his own former chancellor for canonical affairs, Jennifer Haselberger, who charged that the church used a chaotic system of record keeping that helped conceal the backgrounds of guilty priests who remained on assignment.
He did, however, apologize at the time for his conduct, saying that while he had never knowingly covered up sexual abuse by clergy, he had become “too trusting of our internal process and not as hands-on as I could have been in matters of priest misconduct.”
On Monday, he said he would “leave 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.”
Archbishop Nienstedt was himself the subject of two recent investigations into possible misconduct, though no findings of wrongdoing have been announced.
In one case, a boy told the police that the archbishop touched his buttocks while posing for a photo after his confirmation ceremony. The archbishop denied wrongdoing, and temporarily stepped aside while the authorities investigated. Prosecutors later declined to file charges, and Archbishop Nienstedt returned to work.
In another case, the archdiocese announced that it had received “claims regarding alleged misbehavior” against Archbishop Nienstedt that did not involve minors. The allegations were said to be about a series of sexual relationships with men, including seminarians and priests. The church announced an investigation into that matter last year. An archdiocese spokesman, Tom Halden, did not immediately answer questions on Monday morning about the status of that inquiry.
The criminal charges against the Minnesota archdiocese and accompanying civil petition, filed June 5 by the Ramsey County attorney, John J. Choi, stem from accusations by three male victims who say that from 2008 to 2010, when they were minors, a local priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, gave them alcohol and drugs before sexually assaulting them.
Mr. Wehmeyer, 50, who was dismissed as a priest in March, was sentenced to five years in a Minnesota prison in 2013 for criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography. He also has been charged with sex crimes in Wisconsin.
The 44-page criminal complaint states that concerns about Mr. Wehmeyer date to the 1990s, when he was in seminary and supervisors suggested that his past sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse made him a poor candidate for the priesthood.
The five-point plan announced last week by the Vatican says the tribunal will be housed in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that polices adherence to church doctrine and that already handles the cases of priests accused of abuse.
Francis will choose a secretary, and additional permanent staff members will be hired for the tribunal, said Father Lombardi. The procedures will be re-evaluated in five years, he said.
Father Lombardi said that the tribunal’s responsibility for judging bishops would include questions of omission: “What one should have done and didn’t do,” he said. “This is another kind of responsibility and shortcoming, and has to be judged in an appropriate way with appropriate rules.”
Critics of the archdiocese said the resignations, while not surprising, were only another step in addressing the deep-seated concerns with the archdiocese and its leaders.
“The resignation is welcomed because it is a measure of reckoning and accountability,” said Jeff Anderson, a lawyer in Minnesota who has represented victims of sexual abuse by clergy. “But it’s far from enough.”
Frank Meuers, 76, of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said, “I’m sad it had to come to filing charges for a man of that status to get the message.”
Mr. Anderson said more top officials needed to be held accountable for their actions, and that criminal charges would be appropriate for some of them.
He attributed the resignation to the recent criminal charges against the archdiocese and unflattering disclosures made in recent civil cases. Many of those lawsuits were made possible by legislation that allowed victims to sue the church over abuse that happened years ago, and for which the statute of limitations had expired.
“This is about a culture and system that has been intractable,” Mr. Anderson said. “It needs to continue on a headlong course toward full accountability and full disclosure.”
Mr. Meuers added a word of caution.
“I don’t think just because he resigns the office it should be everything’s fine,” he said, referring to Archbishop Nienstedt. “I don’t think he’s free.”
Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York and Gaia Pianigiani from Rome.