John Nienstedt, Detroit’s poster boy for the Catholic Church abuse scandal, is back — and the archdiocese has been keeping it quiet 

TOM CARLSON
  • Tom Carlson

It didn't look like anyone was living at the home north of Port Huron — no cars in the driveway, no tire tracks in what was left of the snow and ice.

Looking through a screen, I saw two pairs of boots on the floor, the corner of a treadmill, and a chair and table. Just as I was going to leave, he got up from the table, clutching a copy of Inside the Vatican magazine.

Suddenly I was face to face with Archbishop John Nienstedt.

He looked surprised but confirmed who he was — then when I started asking questions, he quickly murmured "no, thank you" and shut the door in my face.

Archbishop John Nienstedt. Named as one of the Catholic Church's five top offenders in the entire world who most deserve to be expelled from the priesthood.

Archbishop John Nienstedt. Resigned after a legal settlement that bankrupted the archdiocese he ran in Minnesota because of its cover-up of perpetrator priests.

Archbishop John Nienstedt. Hounded out of Battle Creek by angry parishioners.

Archbishop John Nienstedt. Unwelcome to remain even at right-wing California think tank the Napa Institute.

Archbishop John Nienstedt. Whose reign as rector at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit caused half the seminarians there to sign a letter demanding he be removed.

Archbishop John Nienstedt. Still officially a bishop emeritus in the Catholic Church.

Archbishop John Nienstedt. Detroit's poster boy for the global Catholic abuse scandal.

Archbishop John Nienstedt. Sheltering at his old home, where the monsignor just named as the archdiocese's new spiritual director for priests, Patrick Halfpenny, has also resided at times over the last 10 years, if public records are accurate.

You wouldn't know Nienstedt's name unless you have been following the Catholic Church scandal closely — beyond Spotlight and the recent headlines about Theodore McCarrick, who became the first known cardinal ever to be laicized after being found guilty of sexual crimes against adults and minors earlier this year.

Not unless you read the news that a few weeks ago, at a press conference in Rome, Nienstedt was named by watchdog group Bishop Accountability as one of the two American bishops (and five around the globe) who most deserve to be laicized next for protecting predatory priests.

He's a free man — and a hot potato. A living rebuke to church officials' insistence that they're now diligently protecting everyone from perpetrators in their ranks.

His return has evoked no comment from Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron beyond a little-noticed announcement on Oct. 24 that noted that Nienstedt agreed to "abstain from practicing ministry" while here.

Who in town has known he's been back in his house for at least six months?

The pastor of the church down the road, St. Edward on the Lake Catholic Church?

The principal at the parish's elementary and preschool less than two miles away?

The parents of the children who go to that school?

Archbishop Vigneron doesn't want me to find out the answers to those questions.

***

The name Theodore McCarrick is now widely known. Nienstedt's is less so, but Terry McKiernan of Bishop Accountability says: "There's not a dime's worth of difference between them. Who can tolerate covering up for priests accused of abusing children?”

Nienstedt grew up in Grosse Pointe Farms and graduated from St. Paul Catholic grade school and high school, located among the mansions on Lake Shore Rd. He went to college at Sacred Heart Seminary on Linwood and Chicago Boulevard and graduated in 1969. Then-cardinal John Dearden sent him to Rome, where he did graduate work.

Nienstedt was ordained a priest in 1974, served two years as assistant pastor at a parish in Clawson, and became Dearden's administrative secretary, then the archdiocese vicar general, before returning to Rome for five more years of postgraduate schooling. He got his doctorate in theology there in 1985; his dissertation was on "The Moral Dimensions of in Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer."

Back in Michigan, Nienstedt was appointed pastor in White Lake Township but soon ascended in 1988 to the post of rector at Sacred Heart, tasked with leading a major reorganization. His leadership there was controversial, with Nienstedt presiding over the seminary's longstanding secret subculture of abuse. Eventually, half the seminarians sent the archdiocese a letter asking for him to be removed — and after a short sabbatical, he was transferred in 1994 to become pastor of Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak — the same church from which Fr. Charles Coughlin broadcast nationwide anti-Semitic radio diatribes during the 1930s.

Clearly, however, he still had power in the archdiocese. In 1996, Nienstedt was made an auxiliary bishop and for five years served as director of the archdiocese's "medical-moral committee," drawing upon his dissertation to buttress the church's stance against abortion. Until 2000, Nienstedt remained an assistant professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart. But in 2001, he was transferred suddenly to Minnesota to run the diocese in New Ulm — before moving on in 2007 to direct the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. That's where he became one of the earliest American clerics notorious for his role in the child abuse scandal.

While leading the church there, Nienstedt "covered up for egregious offenders," Anne Barrett Doyle of Bishop Accountability told reporters in Rome last month. Nienstedt used the statute of limitations to persuade a judge to dismiss charges against a predator priest who'd been accused of molesting scores of children — and even asked the judge to make the alleged victim pay $64,000 in legal costs. A Minnesota public radio investigation found that the archdiocese had, among other things, made special cash payments to perpetrator priests.

In December 2013, Nienstedt briefly stepped aside after an allegation of inappropriately touching a boy's buttocks in 2009 but then called the accusation "entirely false" and resumed his duties after the local prosecutor dropped the case for insufficient evidence. Soon Ramsey County prosecutors found more compelling reasons to charge the Twin Cities archdiocese with failing to protect children and for repeatedly mishandling other abuse allegations, including sexual harassment and propositioning of seminarians and priests back in Detroit, as well as in Minnesota.

The archdiocese hired a law firm to do its own investigation. It conducted interviews with five Catholic priests and one former priest (three of them from Detroit), and a former seminarian at Sacred Heart, James Heathcott, who testified that he'd refused an invitation from Nienstedt to join him at a ski chalet for a weekend and was then expelled by him. Joseph Rangitsch said that, while at the seminary, Nienstedt had touched his buttocks and warned him he could "make things unpleasant for you very quickly" if he told anyone about it.

Parishioners in the Twin Cities took to the streets, demanding he resign. In June 2015, when prosecutors brought criminal charges against the archdiocese for contributing to child sex abuse, Nienstedt finally left. The Vatican shut down the church's internal investigation; its results have never been made public.

Nienstedt was one of the first U.S. bishops forced from office for botching sex abuse investigations. It was left to his successor, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, to pick up the pieces after the costly legal settlement of civil charges resulted in millions of dollars in damages. As part of the deal, prosecutors then dropped the criminal charges in 2016.

The archdiocese had declared bankruptcy because of lawsuits from victims. But despite fleeing in disgrace and costing the church millions, Nienstedt escaped any punishment by the Vatican; in fact, he was instead granted the title of "bishop emeritus." As an honored retiree, Nienstedt retains a vote in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

***

McKiernan, of Bishop Accountability, says the church has a "serious problem monitoring bishops guilty of any kind of misconduct. The church is more likely to honor the man, as they did with Nienstedt, by naming him 'emeritus'"—because, McKiernan says, they're "a band of brothers."

As a bishop emeritus, Nienstedt has a special status in the archdiocese in the Twin Cities. In fact, a 2008 Vatican document urges each diocese's current and emeritus bishops "to live in mutual fraternity and to cultivate a spirituality of community."

That's not quite the case in Minnesota. Hebda recently announced that Nienstedt could not exercise public ministry in the archdiocese until allegations surrounding him are resolved. "Hebda needs to get Nienstedt in his rear-view mirror," McKiernan says, calling Nienstedt "both persona non grata and emeritus at the same time."

Since leaving Minnesota, Nienstedt has found a few temporary safe havens. In 2016, a former seminarian at Sacred Heart, Fr. John Fleckenstein, invited Nienstedt to help him officiate at his parish in Battle Creek. But soon parishioners who'd been following the scandal protested, and he fled again — this time for California. There he became an independent contractor at the conservative Napa Institute, editing publications, participating in its annual conference, and even saying Mass. But after the revelations concerning McCarrick in August, the directors at Napa found Nienstedt a millstone — and he was forced to leave. That's when he returned to Michigan again.

Despite all the accusations against him, Nienstedt has steadfastly maintained his innocence. Fr. Tom Gumbleton, the longtime social justice activist who was forced to resign as bishop after revealing he'd been molested as a seminarian at Sacred Heart in the 1940s, told me a few months ago that he's seen Nienstedt at a Downriver bar shaking hands with other priests as if nothing were amiss.

***

Nienstedt, who is 72, has never been convicted of any crime. He is not a registered sex offender. And there has been no word from Rome about any change in his status. Though Hebda in Minnesota and Vigneron here can request he not practice ministry in their territories, Vigneron cannot legally stop Nienstedt from living in his house. But David Clohessy, spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, says the archdiocese could make things very uncomfortable for him if it wanted to by “printing announcements in every parish bulletin every week, having announcements made at Mass every Sunday.” Clohessy says Vigneron doesn’t have to tolerate Nienstedt’s presence here so quietly.

Nienstedt’s home in Burtchville. - MICHAEL BETZOLD
  • Michael Betzold
  • Nienstedt’s home in Burtchville.

In 1998, Nienstedt bought the house at 8171 Lakeshore Drive in Burtchville Township— across the road from a beautiful stretch of Lake Huron, just north of Lakeport State Park. Shelly Baumeister, the township assessor, confirmed that he paid the 2018 taxes for the house — the house is now assessed at $47,800 — from a billing address listed on the township website as 1400 N. 6th St. in New Ulm, Minn., the address of the diocese he headed there from 2001 to 2007. Why that old address? She didn't know.

I couldn't find anyone around Lakeport who knows the archbishop. A lot of the residents are gone during the winter. The bartender and three customers at the nearby Tally Ho Inn had no idea who he is.

HomeMetry.com lists the residents at 8171 Lakeshore for the past 10 years as Nienstedt and Patrick Halfpenny. Monsignor Halfpenny is a seminary classmate who graduated from college at Sacred Heart along with Nienstedt and studied with him in Rome. He is the current pastor at St. Paul in Grosse Pointe Farms — the parish where Nienstedt grew up.

When I called Halfpenny to ask him about the house in Lakeport, he refused to acknowledge he or Nienstedt had ever lived there and hung up without any explanation at all. When I contacted Holly Fournier, the director of communications for the archdiocese, to find out if Archbishop Vigneron was aware that any other priest was also a resident in that house, her official reply was: "The house is owned by Archbishop Nienstedt, so you would have to ask him if anyone else lives there." Perhaps Msgr. Halfpenny has used it as a summer cottage? Nienstedt has mostly been in Minnesota since he bought the place.

Coincidentally, last month, Archbishop Vigneron appointed Halfpenny to a brand-new post as spiritual director of priests for the archdiocese, starting July 1.

Neither Halfpenny nor Vigneron has ever been accused of inappropriate conduct with minors or seminarians. Vigneron, 70, was a year or two behind Halfpenny and Nienstedt at Sacred Heart. He did not study in Rome.

But there is one obvious connection: When Nienstedt left his post as rector of Sacred Heart, Vigneron succeeded him.

About the time Vigneron announced Nienstedt's return in October, Minnesota litigator Jeff Anderson, a frequent foe of the Catholic Church, filed a new lawsuit against the Vatican demanding it release more files on thousands of priests. The suit was brought on behalf of two alleged victims of abuse during Nienstedt's tenure in Minneapolis. It included new allegations that Nienstedt had covered up charges against a priest said to be his lover.

Then, in his December public letter banning Nienstedt from ministry, Minnesota archbishop Hebda made an additional charge: While bishop of New Ulm in 2005, Nienstedt allegedly invited two minors attending a youth congress in Germany to his hotel room, undressed in front of them, and invited them to do the same.

Whether there is any truth to that, McKiernan says, church leaders protect one another —and are "very unlikely to consider it a problem that he may be living close to children." Whether parents might make a different assessment is, however, beyond the control of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

After my visit to Nienstedt's house last week, I went to the parish office of St. Edward on the Lake just as dozens of children were getting out of the school next door. I asked to see the pastor, Fr. Lee Acervo, but was informed he wasn't available, so I left a message. Further phone calls and emails to him and to school principal Nancy Appel went unanswered, and after a couple days I was finally told that no one at St. Edward would speak to me and that I should contact the archdiocese office of communications. So I emailed the chancery to ask if they had told anyone at St. Edward about Nienstedt living nearby.

Holly Fournier's official reply: "Archbishop Nienstedt is neither housed nor supported by the Archdiocese of Detroit, and he does not minister here. As such, we will have no further comment about him."

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