As Pope Francis’s confessional apology to clergy abuse survivors in Rome made global headlines in early July, Minnesota Public Radio was reporting on a scandal surrounding St. Paul Archbishop John Nienstedt.
The pope’s remark, “All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable,” soon receded from the 24/7 news cycle.
But Nienstedt’s reported behavior, and that of his predecessor, Harry Flynn, beg the lingering question of how Francis will hold bishops accountable.
Many dioceses have instituted safe-touch training for teachers and students. Bishops have removed scores of perpetrators who were never prosecuted. But the “zero tolerance” plank in the US bishops’ 2002 youth protection charter rests on voluntary compliance.
That flaw fueled the MPR investigation under lead reporter Madeleine Baran and producer Sasha Aslanian. The radio series explores how past mistakes become time bombs. Various reports were edited into in a one-hour documentary.
A lengthy web narrative, “Betrayed by Silence: A Story in Four Chapters,” based on the radio series, details the scope of coverage:
For decades, the archbishops who led the Catholic archdiocese in the Twin Cities maintained that they were doing everything they could to protect children from priests who wanted to rape them.
Reporters picked up those assurances and repeated them without question. Police and prosecutors took the assurances at face value. Parents believed the assurances and trusted priests with their children.
But the assurances were a lie, and the archbishops knew it. Three of them — John Roach, Harry Flynn and John Nienstedt — participated in a cover-up that pitted the finances and power of the church against the victims who dared to come forward and tell their stories.
Roach is deceased. Flynn is retired and in a May deposition said he “could not remember how he handled clergy sexual abuse cases during his 13-year tenure,” according to MPR. Nienstedt is battling calls for his resignation.
Nienstedt’s negligence is detailed in a searing July 7 affidavit by the former chancellor of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Jennifer Haselberger, in a civil case on behalf of an alleged clergy victim.
The 109-page document is the first insider’s account of the handling of reports of clergy abuse by diocesan officials” since the 2002 passage of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
In 2004, Haselberger began serving on the tribunal for marriage annulments. Church staffers told her about a priest who had been sued at a previous parish for sexual harassment of an employee. As she learned more “about the Archdiocese's handling of sexual abuse of minors by clergy,” she states in the affidavit, “I felt a strong sense of duty to remain and try to fix the very serious problems that I had identified.”
In 2008, Nienstedt named Haselberger chancellor for canonical affairs. She found a chaotic filing system with documents on clergy sex offenders going back decades, including cases covered up and not reported to the Vatican.
"There have been in the past a good number of transactions in which proper canonical processes were not followed or, if followed, they were not properly recorded," Nienstedt told her in a 2008 memo since disclosed in a civil lawsuit. "I do not believe that it is prudent for us to try and correct all the mistakes of the past thirty years in my first six months."
If he was looking for a timid handling of the records, Nienstedt put the wrong woman in charge. With a Ph.D in philosophy from University of London in addition to her canon law license, Haselberger had turned down an FBI job offer to work for the church she believed in. She kept hammering on procedures to remove aberrant priests and do right by victims. Her efforts were largely met with silence or evasions.
Meanwhile, Nienstedt made a pastor of a priest who had been accused of making a pass at a young man at a bookstore. In 2012 the priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, was arrested for abusing a boy.
Haselberger was uncovering murky financial practices, and a soft-glove approach to “problem” priests.
And then the system turned on her.
“My suspension had everything to do with my criticism of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual abuse and my refusal to go along with policies and practices that were putting people at risk,” she states in the affidavit.
Haselberger also spoke to the MPR journalists. She was incensed that St. Paul archbishops had a policy of paying perpetrators to quietly leave the priesthood.
Archbishop Flynn, who retired in 2008, has enjoyed the reputation of a reformer since his first assignment as bishop in the Lafayette, La. diocese.
I had an indirect role in Flynn’s career path.
Flynn was a monsignor in Albany when the Vatican made him a bishop and sent him to the scandal-mired diocese in Cajun country in July 1986. Flynn arrived as coadjutor, or heir-apparent to Bishop Gerard Frey, a velvet-touch Roman way of easing out the incumbent.
Frey’s blunders were central to a long report I had done on a joint assignment for National Catholic Reporter and the weekly Times of Acadiana in spring 1985 on the priest Gilbert Gauthe, who abused dozens of kids over several years, as the church moved him from one unknowing parish to another.
After my initial reports, a wellspring of sources opened. I continued coverage for the weekly Times, and in early 1986 reported that Frey had recycled seven pedophiles across many parishes leaving a trail of human trauma.
Times of Acadiana editor Richard Baudouin (who was several years behind me at Jesuit High School, New Orleans) wrote an editorial calling on Frey and his chancellor, Msgr. Henri Alexandre Larroque, to resign, and failing that, for the Vatican to remove them.
The Lafayette Daily Advertiser had attacked my coverage in the weekly, referring to “vultures of yellow journalism.” When the editorial ran, a wealthy retired judge from the town of Crowley, Edmund Reggie, called the Times publisher Steve May at home, telling him to retract it.
May said no. They had words.
Incensed, Reggie said: “Boy, you just shit in your mess kit.”
Reggie and a prominent monsignor fomented an advertisers’ boycott that cost the weekly paper $20,000 before cooler heads prevailed.
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy, was following the coverage.
Gauthe’s criminal defense lawyer, Ray Mouton had met Doyle and unburdened his frustration at how Frey and Larroque withheld information on other priests as he tried to negotiate a plea for his client.
Mouton was sending Doyle tear-sheets of my articles, which weren’t the best publicity for a client facing a life sentence. Still, Mouton managed to negotiate a 20-year plea that relieved young victims of having to testify.
Gauthe served 10 years and got an early release for good behavior.
As my articles drew a national spotlight on the clergy abuse issue, Mouton opened the door for me to meet Doyle. I wrote about their collaboration on a secret memo to the hierarchy about the impending crisis in a 1992 book, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.” A third of the book focuses on Lafayette.
Mouton published a 2013 novel “In God’s House,” about the travails of a lawyer much like himself defending a priest in a diocese much like Lafayette.
Six months after the editorial, Flynn arrived. My last piece on those events was a July 2, 1986 Times of Acadiana report on his investiture.
Standing in the pulpit before jam-packed pews that included US Senator John Breaux, Flynn’s voice shook: “Today I promise you my love, I promise you my very life!” He got a standing ovation.
I was already following leads in other states, branching into a national investigation. In the book I gave Flynn one fleeting sentence, and am relieved now to have omitted that standing ovation.
The MPR investigation revisits Lafayette, following Flynn as the first stage in the evolution of the St. Paul archdiocesan culture of child abuse cover up. Perhaps Flynn’s most striking lapse in Lafayette was maintaining Larroque, who was Frey’s right hand in reassigning the pedophiles.
In Lafayette, where KLFY-TV reporter Dee Stanley had also given aggressive coverage, the local media interest eventually flagged.
Gannett later bought the Daily Advertiser, and in time, made Steve May an offer he couldn’t refuse and bought the Times of Acadiana. It is now a shell of its old self. May has a competing weekly, the Independent.
One of the parents I profiled in the book, a man who had three sons abused by Gauthe, met with Flynn several years later. MPR reports:
He told the new bishop that Gauthe had acknowledged abusing hundreds of children, but that only a few dozen had come forward. He worried about the other kids, particularly because many of the parents were in denial about what had happened.
Flynn's response startled him. Flynn admitted that the church had been wrong to keep Gauthe in ministry and that it had mishandled the entire situation. But, he explained, there was nothing he could do.
The station got access to previously-sealed documents in a Fort Worth, Texas federal courthouse. The diocese had successfully sued its insurance broker to reimburse settlements paid to victims. The documents were under a protective order that had been lifted. In following a trail of information from those files, MPR found a 1995 affidavit by Anthony Fontana, a victims’ lawyer who also met with Flynn. MPR’s narrative continues:
"There's another problem you need to know about," he told Flynn. A Lafayette priest named Gilbert Dutel had been accused of coercing young adult men into having sex.
Flynn offered a calm reply. He explained that Dutel was cured and that, regardless, he needed to keep him in ministry because of the priest shortage....Flynn was just like the previous bishop, he thought.
I knew Tony Fontana well in my Lafayette reporting. Fontana was a cradle Catholic who sued the church for many victims; he was frustrated about what he was hearing of Dutel’s alleged behavior.
I had no legal document on Dutel from which to report in 1985 or ‘86.
The MPR website has a link to a 1992 deposition in which a young man gives graphic testimony on how he had sex with Dutel as a minor.
The document is evidence in the Lafayette Diocese’s lawsuit against its insurance broker, Gallagher. "This Diocese does not deserve to be rewarded for its deceit, and the harm caused by that deceit and the criminal acts of its priests," the broker argued. "Unbeknownst to Gallagher, the Diocese was a ticking time bomb."
But the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the church.
“Gallagher had to pay the diocese $4 million,” MPR reporter Madeleine Baran told GlobalPost. “It’s hard to tell from the document how it’s being used in the suit, whether it was retrieved by the Gallagher lawyer or taken by them, in arguing that the diocese was negligent.”
MPR redacted names of the victim and other people in the transcript.
On July 21, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests sent a media alert to news outlets in Lafayette and New Orleans on Dutel, now a pastor at St. Edmund parish in Lafayette.
“Church records show no information was ever given to the police or made public about the allegations,” the SNAP statement said. “Everyone knows that child molesters are rarely ‘cured.’ They often continue abusing until they are publicly exposed and kept away from children.”
Dutel refused to do a broadcast interview but in a brief exchange with MPR denied the accusations, saying, "I have a sense that I am not sure that I should be talking to you, because I don't know where this information is coming from."
Flynn’s remark to Fontana that Dutel was “cured” leaves a stigma on his old diocese in Lafayette, and indeed on Dutel, fairly or not.
Did the diocese abide by the zero tolerance policy of the bishops’ 2002 youth protection charter?
Meanwhile, the pathological secrecy that pervades church officialdom followed Flynn from Louisiana to his post in St. Paul-Minneapolis, where as archbishop he planted land mines that are now exploding around Archbishop Nienstedt.
GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry is co-producer of the PBS Frontline film, “Secrets of the Vatican.” His books include Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.