ST. PAUL, Minnesota — The head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis says he won't resign, despite criticism that he and other local Roman Catholic Church leaders concealed allegations about abusive priests, and he again dismissed allegations of sexual misconduct of his own.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Archbishop John Nienstedt said Wednesday that he doesn't believe he has mismanaged the scandal. He said he was shown memos about problem priests, but didn't fully grasp the scope of the troubles until last fall, after a former archdiocese employee went public with her concerns.
"In a sense, you could say that I didn't see the forest through the trees," Nienstedt said. "I saw the trees on a day-to-day basis. But when everything started coming out in October, whoa, Nelly, I just wasn't aware that there was the kind of breadth to the whole thing — which surprised me and kind of sickened me."
Nienstedt has been under pressure since his top adviser on church law, Jennifer Haselberger, resigned last year and publicly accused church leaders of mishandling several cases. Haselberger said she tried to ring alarm bells about recent troubling behavior by two priests but that she felt ignored. Now, the church faces a public nuisance lawsuit that has forced painful revelations and the disclosures of names of dozens of accused priests. The archbishop himself has been the subject of internal and police investigations into alleged sexual misconduct, which he has forcefully denied and did so again Wednesday.
Some Catholics and several newspapers have called for Nienstedt to resign. He publicly addressed those in a column published Thursday in The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocese's newspaper.
"I am bound to continue in my office as long as the Holy Father has appointed me here. I have acknowledged my responsibility in the current crisis we face, and I also take responsibility for leading our archdiocese to a new and better day," he wrote.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests issued a statement saying it is "saddened" that Nienstedt won't resign "but distraught that he continues to deceive."
After months of declining interview requests, Nienstedt said he is now meeting with media because he wants people to know the archdiocese is in a better place than it was 15 months ago. He said that 3,000 priest files have been reviewed and that the archdiocese is on top of the clergy misconduct situation.
He said the archdiocese has new protocols for reporting allegations, including going to police immediately for anything not deemed frivolous.
Nienstedt has been the center of two separate investigations himself. One, alleging he touched a boy inappropriately in a public setting, resulted in no criminal charges. The other, which Nienstedt initiated, is unresolved and involves allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior by him with seminarians and priests. Nienstedt says there's no truth to those allegations.
"I knew that I had nothing to hide and that I hadn't done anything immoral or criminal — or inappropriate," he said.
Nienstedt also discussed the possibility of the archdiocese filing for bankruptcy amid concerns about increased financial vulnerability for old child sex abuse claims. He said that it's an option the archdiocese has considered but that he would like to avoid it.
"We are looking at the financial piece because that's a very big concern of mine," he said
In his column for the archdiocese's newspaper, Nienstedt wrote that he regrets that some Catholics have lost confidence in him and said he hopes to win back their trust.
"I've never lied," he told the AP, adding: "A bishop is not just a CEO of a company. A bishop is really a father of a family of faith. ... When problems arise, he doesn't run away, but he stays and confronts the situation."
Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski contributed from Minneapolis.
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