Ruben Rosario: ‘Clear’ conscience? Even in resignation, Nienstedt fails once more
I’ve never met a Catholic without a guilty conscience. That includes yours truly, the wretched sinner, the practicing Catholic without the blinders on who is still practicing to get it right one of these days. My GC meter was installed at baptism.
I felt guilty when I and a few grammar school classmates placed tacks on the pews in front of us as a prank and got caught by Mother Superior. We were going to pull them back before other classmates sat down, but the thought itself was sin enough.
I felt guilty when I sneaked sips from the sacramental wine before Mass as an altar boy. I felt guilty when I got scolded by a nun in front of the class for not reading “Jane Eyre” as part of a book assignment.
“I just did not have the time to read it, Sister,” I remember saying. I fibbed. I did not want to admit that I found the book to be boring and girlish.
“You did not make time,” she snapped. She was right. I feel guilty about that, too, even now. Someone let me know how the book ended.
Possessing a healthy guilty conscience is a good thing for everyone, regardless of religious or non-religious belief. There is a moral code that is universal. My guilt meter still operates much like the race track rubber guards that help bounce the errant kiddie car back on course.
So I was stunned when I read part of John Nienstedt’s resignation letter this past week.
NO APOLOGY: ‘A CLEAR CONSCIENCE’
The embattled archbishop and a deputy bishop stepped down 10 days after criminal charges were filed against the church as an entity by Ramsey County prosecutors for failing to protect children. It also came days after Pope Francis announced creation of a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for failings in connection with sexual and other abuse. The criminal probe could lead to charges against individual church higher-ups, though criminal intent will be tough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
I had called for Nienstedt to step down about a year ago for his divisive leadership as well as his mishandling of a misbehaving pastor, Curtis Wehmeyer, who went on to molest at least two St. Paul boys and is serving a five-year prison term for those crimes and for possessing child pornography. He also faces charges in the alleged abuse of a third boy in Wisconsin.
Alas, there was no apology, no mea culpa, no act of public contrition or atonement in Nienstedt’s letter. Perhaps saying such would have put the church in more of a legal bind with creditors and prosecutors and insurers. So the letter, to me, felt lawyered from the first word. But this was the line that almost made me choke on my Cheerios: “I leave with a clear conscience …”
In every conversation I’ve had this past week with fellow Catholics, from priests to lapsed Catholics, and others outside the church, all were, at the very least, put off by the remark. Others, particularly sex abuse survivors, were offended.
NIENSTEDT’S LEGACY: CRISIS AND FAILURE
I was particularly struck by the reaction from Jennifer Haselberger. She is the former archdiocesan chancellor for canonical affairs whose decision to blow the whistle in the Wehmeyer case and other questionable practices two years ago led to the criminal probe of the archdiocese and the resignations.
“I envy him,” she told me. Envy? How’s that?
She had raised numerous concerns about Wehmeyer and others years before his abuse was criminally prosecuted. They fell on deaf ears. In fact, Nienstedt approved this child abuser’s promotion as pastor of two churches on St. Paul’s East Side.
Yet, “I feel guilty that I did not do enough for those boys,” she told me. “It’s a guilt that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But my guilt is about one-tenth of what I believe Nienstedt should be held accountable for.”
Imagine that, a conscientious whistleblower who feels more guilt than the guy at the top who sat on his hands in dealing with a problematic priest who went on to abuse children.
Nienstedt’s legacy will be one of crisis and failure, given the sex abuse scandal and the subsequent bankruptcy proceedings. Hopefully, whoever is appointed to replace him will be a true leader and shepherd, a unifier rather than a divider. He should be a pastoral type with the courage to clean house, put teeth behind an effective child abuse protection plan and represent the majority of priests and laity who do good works day in and day out.
Basically, a prelate the opposite of Nienstedt, who either chose or was advised by lawyers not to attend his own resignation news conference. He took off like a thief in the night. The archdiocese will continue to pay his salary unless he lands a gig with another community.
I will, though, pray for him. But good riddance. I say this without feeling any guilt at all.