Former seminarian accuses Nienstedt of retaliation over rejected advance
A man who once studied under John Nienstedt to become a Catholic priest told private investigators hired by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that Nienstedt made what he felt certain was a sexual advance toward him and then expelled him from the seminary after being rebuffed.
James Heathcott, now living on the West Coast, said Friday that he believes it was his story — given in a sworn affidavit — and others uncovered by investigators at the Greene Espel law firm in Minneapolis that prompted Nienstedt to resign earlier this week.
“I certainly hope that anyone who was ever subjected to his abuse of power and arrogance will get a sense of justice and peace of mind from this,” Heathcott said in an interview.
Nienstedt could not be reached for comment Friday.
In an interview with the Star Tribune last summer, after the archdiocese announced it had commissioned the Greene Espel investigation, Nienstedt said the probe centered on five allegations of sexual impropriety made by priests and seminarians, but he staunchly denied that he was gay or had engaged in any improper acts.
“I’m not gay,” he said. “And I’m not anti-gay.”
Heathcott was one of several former priests and seminarians who gave sworn affidavits to Greene Espel in the course of their investigation early last year.
By the end of July, however, Nienstedt abruptly halted the investigation even while attorneys Matt Forsgren and David Wallace-Jackson were still pursuing leads, according to sources with direct knowledge of the events. The archdiocese has declined to comment on anything related to the investigation because it is considered a personnel matter. Greene Espel also has declined to comment. “The archbishop resigned, and now the archdiocese is moving forward,” Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said Friday.
According to a sworn affidavit that Heathcott provided to Greene Espel, Nienstedt was head of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit in the late 1980s, when Heathcott was an 18-year-old student there.
Heathcott said that when Nienstedt once asked him if he had homosexual tendencies, he responded truthfully that he was not gay. Heathcott said he was then mystified when Nienstedt directed him to undergo sexual-identity counseling. “It appeared to me that Nienstedt was pursuing his own agenda rather than following some program adopted by Sacred Heart,” Heathcott said in his testimony.
Later in Heathcott’s time at the seminary, Nienstedt stopped in the hallway of Heathcott’s living quarters and invited him to a private weekend at a ski chalet near Boyne Mountain; Nienstedt and two other seminarians would accompany him.
Heathcott said in the affidavit that he considered the offer “totally inappropriate” and he declined. He said he politely pointed out that Nienstedt had previously admonished students to avoid being alone with any faculty member or theologian. Pairing up away from others would “set off lights and bells,” Heathcott recalled Nienstedt saying.
According to the affidavit, Nienstedt made little or no response to him, “other than perhaps ‘OK’ and walked away.”
But within 72 hours, Nienstedt expelled Heathcott from the seminary, ending his pursuit of the priesthood, the affidavit said. The expulsion came in the form of a typed letter that said Heathcott’s “recent behaviors” (he had angered Nienstedt by missing an important Mass due to illness) was sending the “wrong message” to other seminarians.
“I was outraged by this … I was angry — and devastated,” Heathcott said in the document.
In the afidavit, Heathcott accuses Nienstedt of sexual harassment and says he regards his ouster from the seminary as retribution “because I rejected the invitation to go on a private ski trip.”