MINNEAPOLIS — Archbishop John Nienstedt, a former Detroit Catholic auxiliary bishop and onetime pastor of Royal Oak’s Shrine of the Little Flower parish, has announced that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is investigating him after allegations of inappropriate behavior surfaced several months ago.
In a statement released Tuesday, Nienstedt said he ordered the investigation himself after the claims were made against him. He did not detail the nature of the allegations, but said they are “absolutely and entirely false.” He added that they do not involve minors or lay members and do not suggest anything illegal.
“The arrchdiocese investigates all allegations of clergy misconduct,” Nienstedt said. “It would be unfair to ignore these allegations simply because I know them to be false.”
Nienstedt’s statement came after the investigation was first reported online Tuesday by Commonweal, a Catholic publication. Nienstedt told the journal that he’d been accused by a former priest of improperly touching the man’s neck.
The archbishop told Commonweal: “I have never engaged in sexual misconduct and certainly have not made any sexual advances toward anyone.”
Nienstedt said in his statement that the accusations refer to alleged events at least a decade ago, before he began working in the archdiocese. Nienstedt said he ordered Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche to investigate, and he would have ordered an investigation into any other priest facing similar allegations. Piche released a statement saying he hired an independent firm to investigate, and the inquiry is proceeding. Piche did not name the firm.
The Commonweal article quotes a former Minneapolis archdiocese official, who said she was questioned by the investigators and who said she believes there are other claims that Nienstedt had demonstrated inappropriate conduct toward other priests and seminarians, including from his years in the Detroit-area.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit declined to answer questions about whether Detroit church officials had received any complaints of inappropriate behavior involving Nienstedt.
“It is the practice of the Archdiocese of Detroit not to comment on the internal matters, processes, or any investigation in another diocese or archdiocese,” spokesman Ned McGrath said Wednesday.
Nienstedt, 67, is a native Detroiter who studied for the priesthood at the archdiocese’s Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. He also has served as rector and president of the Detroit seminary. He was Royal Oak Shrine’s pastor from 1994 to June 1996 when Pope John Paul II made him an auxiliary bishop in Detroit. In 2001, Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop of the New Ulm diocese in Minnesota. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him archbishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis.
St. Paul Police Department spokesman Howie Padilla said the Minneapolis archdiocese informed police about the internal investigation while authorities were actively investigating other cases involving individuals in the archdiocese. Padilla said all cases have been turned over to prosecutors for review.
Dennis Gerhardstein, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, said several cases are still under review. He said prosecutors didn’t receive a case on this particular issue involving Nienstedt.
Nienstedt said the apostolic nuncio, who oversees all bishops in the United States, has been told of the allegations and will be given the results when it is complete.
“Let us pray that the truth will come out as a result of the investigation,” Nienstedt wrote.
Nienstedt and other top archdiocese officials have been under fire since last fall, when a whistleblower went public with claims that they mishandled allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
The archbishop himself stepped down from active ministry last December, after he was accused of improperly touching a boy while posing for a public photo session during a 2009 confirmation ceremony. Nienstedt denied that claim and returned to ministry after prosecutors announced in March that they would not seek criminal charges.