Archbishop Nienstedt, Bishop Piché resign; Catholics look to future of archdiocese

| June 18, 2015

In confirming the resignations of his fellow bishops June 15, Bishop Andrew Cozzens pledged to work closely with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ new apostolic administrator “to bring our archdiocese into a new day so that the work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which we have done here for almost 165 years, may continue.”

Archbishop John Nienstedt, right, addresses the media during a press conference Jan. 16 announcing that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had filed for Chapter 11 Reorganization. At left is Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché. Both resigned June 15. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Archbishop John Nienstedt, right, addresses the media during a press conference Jan. 16 announcing that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had filed for Chapter 11 Reorganization. At left is Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché. Both resigned June 15. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Speaking to media outside the chancery offices, Bishop Cozzens called the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché “a painful process” and said that the transition to new leadership leaves “many unanswered questions.”

The questions are expected to linger as leadership of the archdiocese is transferred from Archbishop Nienstedt to Archbishop Bernard Hebda, 55-year-old coadjutor archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, whom Pope Francis appointed temporarily to the helm of the Minnesota archdiocese.

The Holy See announced June 15 that Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché had resigned. National commentators have called the double episcopal resignation “unprecedented.”

In a statement, Archbishop Nienstedt said he submitted his resignation to Pope Francis “in order to give the archdiocese a new beginning amidst the many challenges we face.”

“The Catholic Church is not our Church, but Christ’s Church, and we are merely stewards for a time,” he said in a statement. “My leadership has unfortunately drawn away from the good works of his Church and those who perform them. Thus, my decision to step down.”

On June 5, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office filed criminal and civil charges against the archdiocese as a corporation alleging it failed to protect three boys who were sexually abused in 2008-2010 by Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest of the archdiocese, while he was pastor of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul. No individuals were charged June 5.

Wehmeyer was convicted of the abuse and is serving a five-year prison sentence. He was dismissed from the priesthood in March 2015.

Archbishop Nienstedt, 68, was appointed coadjutor archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2007, and installed as its archbishop in June 2008. He succeeded Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn, who retired in 2008. Prior to taking the helm of the archdiocese, Archbishop Nienstedt was bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota, from 2001 to 2007, and auxiliary bishop of Detroit from 1996 to 2001.

“It has been my privilege the last seven years to serve this local Church,” Archbishop Nienstedt said in a statement. “I have come to appreciate deeply the vitality of the 187 parishes that make up the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. I am grateful for the support I have received from priests, deacons, religious men and women and lay leaders, especially those who have collaborated with me in the oversight of this local Church.”

He added: “I leave with a clear conscience knowing that my team and I have put in place solid protocols to ensure protection of minors and vulnerable adults.”

Archbishop Nienstedt requested prayers for “the well-being of this archdiocese and its future leaders.”

“I also ask for your continued prayers for me,” he said.

Bishop Piché, 57, was ordained a bishop for St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2009. A former pastor of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, he oversaw Wehmeyer from 2001-2005, while the former priest was an assistant priest of the parish.

“The people of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis needed healing and hope. I was getting in the way of that, so I had to resign,” he said in a statement. “It has been a privilege to serve this local Church, and I will continue to hold everyone in the archdiocese in my prayers.”

Bishop Cozzens, ordained in December 2013, is now the only auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The archdiocese filed in January for Reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code amid mounting claims of clergy sexual abuse. In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature lifted the civil statute of limitations on claims of child sexual abuse for a three-year period.

In February, the archdiocese announced that it would sell archdiocesan buildings, including the archbishop’s residence, as part of the Reorganization.

Upon learning the news of the bishops’ resignations, Catholics across the nation took to social media with varying reactions. On The Catholic Spirit’s Facebook page, several commenters said they were praying for the bishops and expressed appreciation for their ministry.

In a phone interview, Mary Ann Kuharski told The Catholic Spirit she was heartsick when she heard that Archbishop Nienstedt and Bishop Piché had resigned.

Kuharski, the founder of Prolife Across America and a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, is also the mother of a young priest, Father Joseph Kuharski, who was ordained in May 2014.

“As a mom with a son ordained a year ago, I was in tears,” Kuharski said. “But we are a people of joy, we are a people of hope, and we are a people of faith.

“You know, St. Paul says good comes from all things, so something good will come from this,” she added. “This is God’s Church and he’s never let it down in 2,000 years. Our Lord said, ‘I will be with you always.’ Let’s watch for miracles now.”

“The whole thing is very sad and confusing,” said Paul Bernabei, a Twin Cities educator and parishioner of Nativity Of Our Lord in St. Paul.

“I think this is going to send us deep into what’s important,” he said. “At the heart of my belief is that Jesus took death and transformed it into life. We can make this worse by denying or by getting locked into blame or judging.”

Instead, he said, Catholics need to ask themselves how they can be “Christ’s presence in this story.”

“If we are and can be,” he said, “the Church will rise up out of the ashes and will be something beautiful.”

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