Archbishop Hebda elaborates on charge dismissal, Archbishop Nienstedt investigation

| August 2, 2016 | 1 Comment

Archbishop Bernard Hebda takes questions on the archdiocese’s child-protection efforts, decision not to plead guilty to the criminal charges and plans for the release of documents tied to the 2014 internal investigation of Archbishop John Nienstedt.

Q. Archbishop Hebda, the Ramsey County attorney dismissed the criminal case he had initiated against the archdiocese last June. What does this mean for the archdiocese? For victims?

A. Having acknowledged our past failures, our hope is to work with victims and others to achieve our common goal of protecting children — a goal that we share with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office and a goal that is of extreme importance to those who have been harmed. In particular, for victims and survivors of abuse, the dismissal means that we can now attempt to further the healing process through the restorative justice initiatives envisioned in the Settlement Agreement (see Archbishop Hebda: ‘We failed’ in case of abusive priest). The dismissal of the criminal charges could also have a positive impact on the ability of the archdiocese to work with others to provide just compensation for victims who are claimants in the archdiocesan bankruptcy proceedings.

Q. You publicly admitted that the archdiocese failed to protect the three children abused by Curtis Wehmeyer, who once served as a priest in this archdiocese. Why didn’t the archdiocese simply plead guilty?

A. If we believed we were guilty, we would have pled guilty. As I discussed the matter with the various consultative bodies in the archdiocese, such as the Finance Council, the Board of the Corporation and the College of Consultors, there was a broad consensus that the archdiocese was not guilty of the crime with which we were charged. Our compelling reasons are set forth in the brief that now appears on the website of the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. To be clear, the archdiocese failed those three minors and their family — and for that we are deeply sorry. A failure, however, isn’t the same as a crime. That is a legal question, not a moral question. Rather than enter into protracted arguments about the law, we chose to acknowledge publicly our failures while agreeing to be held accountable for creating and maintaining a safe environment, as set forth in the Settlement Agreement. The Ramsey County attorney and the judge both emphasized that we have agreed to far more than what could have ever been achieved through litigation. By dismissing the criminal charges, the Ramsey County attorney did the right thing. This is a fair resolution and consistent with what the law requires.

Q. The archdiocese has apologized for the sexual abuse of minors by clergy on previous occasions over the years, yet people have been abused. What makes this time different?

A. This time, the apology of the archdiocese is accompanied by an admission of failure. Moreover, it is supported by the Settlement Agreement and by statements from both the court and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office that the archdiocese is in compliance, as proven through verified actions, with a standard that goes beyond even what could have ever been imposed by a court. I’m hoping that establishes our good faith in a way that shows we’re serious about this apology and that makes our words ring true.

Q. Can you tell us more about restorative justice?

A. The focus of restorative justice is to bring victims and offenders together — sometimes along with other representatives from the community — in forums where victims take an active role in the process and offenders apologize, all with the ultimate goals of healing, being held accountable for past actions and preventing future offenses. It is a much different model than traditional legal proceedings that focus primarily on punishment rather than healing and prevention. Our senior staff was moved after attending a presentation on restorative justice by Jeanne Bishop, a Chicago attorney, author and restorative justice expert, whose sister was murdered, and I was personally energized during preliminary sessions that we have held with Justice Janine Geske, a retired justice of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, who has graciously assisted us in exploring avenues for restorative justice.

Q. How involved were you in the Ramsey County case over the past year?

A. Making sure that we are protecting children has been a constant focus since I arrived as administrator in mid-June of 2015. Addressing the charges in both the civil and criminal cases has been a priority for me and for archdiocesan leadership. We had weekly meetings of the senior staff with our attorney on this matter, Joseph Dixon of Fredrikson & Byron, to monitor the case, and the matter was routinely reviewed with the archdiocesan Finance Council, the College of Consultors and the Corporate Board.

Bishop [Andrew] Cozzens, Tim O’Malley and I met directly with Mr. [John] Choi and his staff on a number of occasions throughout the year. Some of those sessions lasted many hours. Ultimately, it was at an all-day session capably mediated by two former judges, Judge James Rosenbaum and Judge Kathleen Gearin, that we finally arrived at the agreement that resulted in the dismissal. I am grateful to both mediators. I will also always be grateful for the wisdom offered not only by the small team of lay leaders that we assembled from our Finance Council and Corporate Board for that day, but also all those who made themselves available by phone for consultation throughout the day and late into the evening.

Q. What about the investigation into Archbishop John Nienstedt?

A. Here is what I learned about what happened: In January 2014, Archbishop Nienstedt charged Bishop [Lee] Piché with investigating for the archdiocese allegations that had been made about Archbishop Nienstedt, stemming from his days in Detroit and New Ulm. Bishop Piché engaged a local law firm, Greene Espel, to conduct the investigation. The investigation began broadly looking at allegations from Archbishop Nienstedt’s past. Greene Espel made a progress report to Bishop Piché in April 2014 with affidavits from those who were making the allegations. After consulting with others, Bishop Piché, Bishop Cozzens and Archbishop Nienstedt went to Washington, D.C., to update the nuncio regarding the allegations that had emerged.

On their return, Bishop Piché continued his efforts to complete the investigation. He focused the scope of the inquiry on whether there was credible evidence that Archbishop Nienstedt had committed a “grave delict or crime,” which is the standard under canon law that determines whether punishment is merited. In early July, after Greene Espel had interviewed Archbishop Nienstedt and others, Bishop Piché directed Greene Espel to conclude its report without conducting additional investigation beyond what it had already done to that point. As is reflected in the memorandum that was made public last week, this directive was controversial internally and led to a breakdown in the investigation. From what I know, different people had very different, yet strongly-held, beliefs on how to proceed.

In late July 2014, at the request of Bishop Piché, Greene Espel submitted a final report based on the work they had completed. In their report, Greene Espel cautioned that it had not completed all of the work it thought would be required as part of a thorough investigation. They also identified additional investigative leads that they believed should be considered. Bishop Piché then asked another attorney, Peter Wold, to follow through on identified leads to complete the investigation. Wold completed a report in early 2015. I know that Bishop Piché believes the investigation was comprehensive and completed to the best of his ability. In 2015, both the Wold report and the Greene Espel report were shared with the nunciature for advice on whether the matter should be referred for some type of canonical review or other determination.

I realize that some well-intended people have called for me to release the documentation that was produced in the course of the Archbishop Nienstedt investigation. Of course, at this stage, there is a great deal that is already publicly known about the investigation: the nature of the allegations was publicly reported in the media as well as released by the Ramsey County attorney; Archbishop Nienstedt also made his response publicly known; and I have provided an overview of the investigative process, its challenges and the related controversy.

On the other hand, some of those interviewed in the investigation came forward with an expectation of confidentiality. I feel obligated to do my best to honor their wishes. I also remain concerned that making even sanitized reports public runs the risk of identifying witnesses with their statements. As you would imagine, investigations of this sort necessarily involve assessments of witness credibility offered by others, not to mention other types of confidential information. Making those assessments and that information public could unnecessarily embroil the archdiocese in further litigation.

After considering a variety of competing interests, including what would be fair and just to all involved, and taking note of the intervening resignation of Archbishop Nienstedt, I believe it would be unwise for me to release all of the documents and witness information at this point. I understand that not everyone agrees with that conclusion, but I have weighed the ramifications of my decision and believe we are better off erring on the side of caution in situations where others may be harmed.

Allow me to stress that each and every witness involved in the investigation remains free to come forward as he or she chooses. They can each make that decision for themselves, and I will not interfere in any way with their decisions.

Q. What do you know about the claim made in the memo released by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office suggesting that there was a cover-up in the Archbishop Nienstedt investigation?

A. One of the documents released by the Ramsey County attorney was a memorandum by Father Dan Griffith to Bishop Piché on July 7, 2014, regarding Father Griffith’s concerns about the breakdown in the investigation. After that memorandum was written, Bishop Piché asked Greene Espel to complete a final, limited report, which they did. Peter Wold then completed the investigation. Both reports were confidentially shared with the nunciature for advice on whether the matter should be referred for some type of canonical review or other determination. I know that those involved within the archdiocese sincerely disagreed with one another about how to best move forward with completing the investigation. I know that Bishop Piché believes the investigation comprehensively addressed the allegations. What is apparent to me now is that the investigation was extraordinarily challenging and the process used by the archdiocese created additional issues.

As circumstances would have it, leaders of the archdiocese were also being investigated by law enforcement. For three years, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, along with the St. Paul Police Department, conducted a thorough investigation of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and its leaders. As reflected in the documentation that the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office released two weeks ago, that investigation included an examination of the very allegations that had been the basis of the Greene Espel investigation. Ramsey County also possessed the memorandum that raised concerns of a cover-up. They also interviewed the individuals they thought were important, including Father Dan Griffith, before completing their investigation.

On July 20, 2016, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, with the benefit of all the information gathered in his investigation, concluded, as he detailed at his press conference, that there was no basis for bringing criminal charges against any of the archdiocesan leaders. He also dismissed the criminal charges against the archdiocese.

I appreciate that this only answers the question of whether there was any criminal conduct, and does not address the issue of the internal investigation, which focused on whether Archbishop Nienstedt had engaged in conduct that compromised his ability to lead the archdiocese. That internal question became irrelevant in my mind when Archbishop Nienstedt resigned. Moreover, canon law is sufficiently realistic and practical in that it doesn’t authorize bishops to judge their peers, and does not contemplate any further role in this matter for me or the archdiocese.

Given all of the problems that arose as a result of the allegations against Archbishop Nienstedt and the subsequent investigation, we have learned some lessons. Today, under the Settlement Agreement, we are committed to bringing any future allegations involving an archbishop or auxiliary bishop to the Board of Directors of the Corporation. The archdiocese will rely on the talents and expertise of both lay and clergy board members to help guide such a review. I am confident that their advice, should it be needed, will be invaluable in making certain that any future investigations avoid the pitfalls of the past.

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  • Paula Ruddy

    Thank you, Archbishop Hebda, for the forthright explanations. And thanks, Catholic Spirit, for the pointed questions.