Minnesota Bishop Says Nienstedt Investigation Was 'Doomed to Fail'

Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens was part of a team charged with reviewing Archbishop John Nienstedt’s handling of clerical sexual abuse allegations in the archdiocese, and investigating allegations of sexual misconduct toward seminarians on the archbishop’s part.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released Friday his account of a now-controversial 2014 investigation into allegations against Archbishop John Nienstedt.

“In retrospect, it was doomed to fail. We did not have enough objectivity or experience with such investigations. Nor did we have authority to act. Throughout our efforts, we did not know where we could turn for assistance, because there was no meaningful structure to address allegations against bishops,” he wrote of the investigation.

Bishop Cozzens was part of a team charged with reviewing Archbishop Nienstedt’s handling of clerical sexual abuse allegations in the archdiocese, and investigating allegations of sexual misconduct toward seminarians on the archbishop’s part.  

“In early 2014, Archbishop Nienstedt asked his subordinates to conduct a review of allegations against him. When affidavits containing serious allegations of misconduct by Archbishop Nienstedt with adults were brought forward, Bishop [Lee] Piché and I tried our best to bring them to the attention of people who might have authority to act and guide the investigation. This included the then nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò,” Cozzens wrote.

“When Bishop Piché and I believed that we were being told by the nuncio to close the investigation, we strenuously objected. When the nuncio clarified that we should focus the investigation and complete it, we did so.”

Archbishop Viganò, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States was accused this week of quashing the 2014 investigation into Archbishop Nienstedt, based on a 2014 memo from a priest of the archdiocese, Father Dan Griffith.

Archbishop Viganò said Wednesday that Bishops Cozzens and Auxiliary Bishop Piché had misunderstood his direction.

The accusation against Archbishop Viganò arose after he released an Aug. 25 letter calling for the resignation of Pope Francis and other senior Church leaders, who, he said, failed to act on reports of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s sexual immorality.

Bishop Cozzens’ statement is consistent with the former nuncio’s account of the Archbishop Nienstedt investigation. Nevertheless, Bishop Cozzens said he understood the frustration expressed by Griffith, “whom I believe acted in good faith and with sincerity and integrity. We all did the best we could in a difficult situation.”

Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché both resigned in June 2015, after the archdiocese was criminally charged with mishandling sex abuse allegations. Prosecutors later dropped criminal charges against the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

Archbishop Viganò resigned in April 2016, at the customary age of 75.

Bishop Cozzens’ Aug. 31 statement said that his archdiocese has learned from past mistakes, and that lay-led reviews and investigations are key to holding bishops accountable when they are accused of abuse.
“When there is an allegation against a bishop or archbishop in our Archdiocese, it is reported to the Board of Directors, lay people. They play a vital role in making certain that all allegations are investigated and addressed,” he said. “I believe that a similar approach utilizing lay expertise is necessary on the national level.”

“As a practical matter, bishop-led investigations have mixed credibility in the public domain: some inevitably believe the accused bishop is being treated unfairly; others believe he is receiving preferential treatment,” he said. “A fair resolution becomes unachievable. The accuser deserves better. We all deserve better.”

Rather, when bishops themselves are accused of abuse, the Church “desperately needs an independent structure, led by experienced lay personnel, to investigate and review allegations made against bishops, archbishops and cardinals,” he said.

Bishop Cozzens said he and Bishop Lee Piché “tried our best” to bring allegations against Archbishop Nienstedt to the proper authorities, which included then-nuncio Archbishop Viganò.

“When Bishop Piché and I believed that we were being told by the nuncio to close the investigation, we strenuously objected. When the nuncio clarified that we should focus the investigation and complete it, we did so,” the auxiliary bishop said. “An independent national review board would result in a more fair process for holding the hierarchy accountable. In this way, there will be more confidence in our Church leaders in the future.”

Current Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, issued a similar statement Friday, affirming the need for bishop accountability through lay review boards and investigations.

“I fully support engaging lay leadership. Church leaders must be judged by outsiders who have the independence, objectivity and expertise to be fair and credible. We need the assurance that any cleric — whether a newly ordained priest or a Pope — who abused minors or knowingly protected or enabled such abusers, will be held accountable,” he said. “The same is true for those who abuse their position to take advantage of vulnerable adults, persons receiving spiritual care or seminarians.”

At the conclusion of his statement, he invited everyone in the archdiocese to join him for a Eucharistic holy hour of reparation and prayers for healing, which will be held at the Cathedral of Saint Paul on the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, Saturday, Sept. 15 at 11 a.m.

“In the midst of this darkness, it is the Lord’s promise that he will be with us always (Matthew 28:20), that he will never abandon his Church, that gives me hope,” he said.

“As the darkness of the past is brought to light, I am trusting in St. Paul’s insight that what is illuminated will itself be light (Ephesians 5:13).”