Catholic church says not to worry about our cover story on John Nienstedt

The subject of Metro Times came up during Mass at St. Edward on the Lake Catholic Church.
The subject of Metro Times came up during Mass at St. Edward on the Lake Catholic Church.

One of the world's worst scandal-tainted bishops living in your parish? Not to worry, say local Catholic Church leaders.

By means of a letter signed by the pastor of St. Edward on the Lake, the Archdiocese of Detroit is assuring parishioners that it "is patently untrue" that Archbishop John Nienstedt could be a "potential threat" to their community north of Port Huron.

In a surprise announcement at the end of Mass on Saturday afternoon, Fr. Lee Acervo told his flock at St. Edward for the first time that Nienstedt is their neighbor. He emphasized that allegations against him are unproven — and added that the March 20 Metro Times cover story, in which his residence was revealed, is "not based on truth."

The church made copies of the letter from Acervo — which also provided "my absolute assurance" that any "insinuations" that Nienstedt could be a dangerous neighbor "are unfounded" — available to people leaving Mass.

But Acervo is apparently only the messenger of this "all clear" signal. In his remarks from the pulpit, Acervo said that even though it's in the first person and signed by him, he didn't compose the letter — "the archdiocese wrote it."

When I asked Fr. Acervo after Mass what was untrue in the story about Nienstedt, he wouldn't answer and referred me to the archdiocese's recent statement that Nienstedt is "neither housed nor supported by the Archdiocese of Detroit, and he does not minister here" and "we will have no further comment about him."

In my previous story, I reported that Nienstedt was named by Bishop Accountability as one of the five Catholic bishops around the world who most deserve to be defrocked next, as was Theodore McCarrick last year. Nienstedt, who's from Detroit and had a controversial tenure as rector of the seminary here in the 1990s, is the target of a laundry list of accusations, including undressing in front of teenagers at a global youth conference. Nienstedt has been hounded by numerous unresolved accusations of personal misconduct and prosecuted for mishandling clergy abuse cases while running the archdiocese of St. Paul-Minnesota. He resigned in 2015 — and the church there reached a settlement with prosecutors that was soon followed by the archdiocese declaring bankruptcy.

Nienstedt has since been chased out of Battle Creek by angry parishioners after helping a priest friend in his church there — and he was also forced to leave a California think tank. Last October, Archbishop Allen Vigneron issued a little-noticed statement saying that Nienstedt had moved back to his home in the Detroit area and had agreed not to practice ministry here. In December, the new archbishop in the Twin Cities slapped him with the same restriction there — yet Nienstedt is still a bishop emeritus and has not been otherwise punished by the Catholic authorities nor convicted of any crime.

Vigneron has never announced exactly where Nienstedt is living. Recently, I verified he's in the hamlet of North Lakeport, three miles from St. Edward church and elementary school and half a mile from a municipal lakeside park with a kids' play area. He's back in a vacation home he bought in 1998 and which at times since then has also been used by his seminary classmate, Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny, pastor of St. Paul in Grosse Pointe Farms. (In July, Halfpenny will assume a newly created post as spiritual director of priests in the archdiocese.)

The letter distributed this weekend stated that Nienstedt has had no role at St. Edward church or school in the six years Acervo has been pastor. "I have never seen him at the parish or surrounding area," it stated.

Most of the parishioners I talked to after Mass on Saturday said they had no idea who Nienstedt was or that he was living nearby. Acervo's announcement and letter came as a bolt from the blue — and most didn't immediately know how to respond. One man said his wife had read my article — but he dismissed the information in the story as "gossip." The only Mass attendee I found who knew anything about Nienstedt was a young man visiting from another parish who'd been following news reports on the church scandal.

No one at the church or school will return my calls or emails — they've been instructed to refer me to the chancery. Archdiocese spokeswoman Holly Fournier responded to my questions on Monday by emailing: "We are aware of Fr. Acervo's letter and we have nothing more to add on this topic."

When I reached her by phone and asked her to clarify when and how the chancery became "aware" of the letter, she refused to say anything more than "The letter speaks for itself." When pressed about whether St. Edward parishioners should believe church officials endorsed the views in the letter, she conceded: "It's not disputed" by the archdiocese.

Perhaps in the archdiocese's previous statement that Nienstedt is "neither housed nor supported" by the church here, "supported" means financially supported.

The letter is below.

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