Investigators explore ties between Nienstedt and defrocked priest
Ramsey County authorities are investigating personal ties between former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest now serving time in prison for sexually molesting two boys in his parish, say sources familiar with the investigation into the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The inquiry is part of the county attorney’s ongoing probe into the archdiocese’s alleged lax handling of Wehmeyer, a priest known for sexual misconduct and alcohol problems. The criminal complaint filed earlier this month against the archdiocese cited multiple examples over years of Nienstedt’s failure to act on troubling information about Wehmeyer.
Nienstedt resigned Monday.
Jennifer Haselberger, a former chancery canon lawyer who warned Nienstedt about Wehmeyer, said she was interviewed Monday by the county attorney’s office “regarding their ongoing investigation into potential criminal charges against Nienstedt, [former bishop Lee] Piché and/or other Chancery officials.”
She said she was asked about any connections between Nienstedt and Wehmeyer, in particular about the questions she may have been asked by the Greene Espel law firm. The firm was hired in 2014 by the archdiocese to investigate allegations of sexual improprieties between Nienstedt and seminarians and priests before he became archbishop.
That report was never made public, and key sources told the Star Tribune that the archdiocese halted the inquiry while investigators were still pursuing leads.
The Ramsey County attorney’s office would not confirm details of its investigation. But County Attorney John Choi acknowledged that as part of a complex investigation, it’s important to learn the motives of players.
“The public can safely assume that we are exploring that question and others,” Choi said in interview Tuesday.
Nienstedt has described his ties to Wehmeyer as “pastoral.” He has denied all allegations of sexual impropriety. The archdiocese had no comment Tuesday night.
The county attorney’s historic criminal complaint against the archdiocese charges that the chancery and its “highest levels of leadership” failed to protect children from pedophile priests over decades. The charges stem from the archdiocese’s alleged lack of oversight of Wehmeyer, now serving a prison term for molesting two boys in 2010.
Nienstedt was made aware of Wehmeyer’s sexual problems and erratic behavior years before, said the complaint. That includes seeking two young men for sex at a Barnes & Noble in 2004, and “cruising’’ in a Maplewood park in 2006. Nonetheless, the lawsuit states:
• The archbishop was “unable to explain how or why the Archdiocese did not respond appropriately’’ to concerns over the Barnes & Noble incident.
• Wehmeyer told investigators that Nienstedt was aware that he had been sent to the St. Luke treatment center and had drinking problems when he was being considered for the Blessed Sacrament post. He said he asked the archbishop a couple of times, “Are you aware of my past?” the complaint said. Wehmeyer said that Nienstedt replied, “I don’t have to look into that stuff.’’
• Although the archdiocese received at least 12 reports complaining of Wehmeyer’s behavior in 2011 — including uncontrolled anger, demeaning outbursts and verbal abuse of staff and parishioners — he was not removed.
By May 2012, Wehmeyer was in therapy, and Nienstedt asked to attend a therapy session with him “to discuss issues that have been raised,” the complaint said.
Haselberger has stated that she believed Nienstedt’s treatment of Wehmeyer was different from that of most other priests.
She reported seeing a note from Nienstedt to Wehmeyer regarding a dinner they shared. She reported the archbishop asked for help arranging a visit to Wehmeyer in the inpatient sex-offender treatment program where he stayed before sentencing. Nienstedt did not make the visit.
In a 2014 court affidavit, Haselberger said she believed the background information on Wehmeyer that she presented to Nienstedt in 2009, when he was considering appointing Wehmeyer to Blessed Sacrament Church, would scuttle such an appointment.
She wrote: “I was unaware at that time that rather than perceiving this information as a warning, Archbishop Nienstedt viewed it as an opportunity to seek a closer acquaintance with Father Wehmeyer.”