In a surprise but highly significant decision regarding bishop accountability, Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Archbishop John Clayton Nienstedt of St Paul’s and Minneapolis and also that of the archdiocese's auxiliary bishop, Lee Anthony Piché, after Prosecutors charged the archdiocese for failing to protect minors from abuse by a priest.
The Vatican broke the news at midday on Monday, June 15, and said that Francis took the decision in conformity with Canon 401 #2 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law. Article 2 of that canon states: “A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill-health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.”
The “grave reason” for which the archbishop and auxiliary bishop handed in – or were asked to hand in – their resignation existed when Prosecutors, on June 5, charged the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis over its handling of clergy abuse claims. They charged that the archdiocese – and by implication its leaders - had failed to protect children from harm and had "turned a blind eye" to repeated reports of inappropriate behavior by one of its priests who was later convicted of molesting boys.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi charged the archdiocese with six counts of “gross demeanor.” Announcing this, he said there was ‘not yet’ enough evidence to charge any individual. The charges relate to the archdiocese’s handing of the case of the former priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, who is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for molesting two boys and faces further prosecution involving a third boy in Wisconsin.
The prosecutors charged that the archdiocesan church leaders had failed to respond to "numerous and repeated reports of troubling conduct" by Wehmeyer, which extended from the time he entered seminary until he was removed from the priesthood in 2015.
"It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused, but it is the archdiocese as well," because church leaders in the archdiocese "time and time again turned a blind eye in the name of protecting priests at the expense of protecting children,” even though they had the power to remove him, Attorney Choi stated.
News of the resignation comes days after the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had established a special tribunal (“A Judicial Section”) within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops who have been guilty of the crime of negligence in protecting children, minors or other vulnerable people from abuse by priests or other church personnel.
Pope Francis has stated clearly that there are “no daddy’s boys” in his pontificate, and any priest, bishop or cardinal who fails in their duty to protect children, minors or other vulnerable persons from sexual abuse by priests will be held fully responsible for this crime. In other words, there are no longer any protected species in the church.
Earlier this year, in a similar kind of case, the Pope also accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-Saint Joseph, after a US judge had condemned him on a count of ‘misdemeanor’ in failing to protect children from abuse by a priest.
The Vatican, today also announced that Pope Frances has appointed Mgr. Bernard Anthony Hebda, coadjutor of the archdiocese of Newark, as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese of St. Paul’s and Minneapolis. He will oversee the diocese until a new archbishop is nominated.