John Nienstedt being investigated for same-sex relations

A Catholic archbishop in Minnesota who had once been one of the most vocal opponents of gay rights in the church is the target of an investigation into allegations that he has had a series of sexual relationships with priests, seminarians, and other men.

The investigation of Archbishop John Nienstedt is being conducted by a prominent Minneapolis law firm hired by the archdiocese after church officials received allegations against Nienstedt.

The archdiocese confirmed the investigation through a Catholic magazine.

Nienstedt said in a separate statement that the allegations “are absolutely and entirely false” and he said that he had authorized the internal investigation, which he called “independent, thorough.”

“The allegations do not involve minors or lay members of the faithful, and they do not implicate any kind of illegal or criminal behavior,” Nienstedt stated. “The allegations involve events alleged to have occurred at least a decade ago, before I began serving in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.”

The magazine’s story cites Jennifer Haselberger, former lawyer for Nienstedt, as saying that she learned of the investigation when she was questioned by attorneys from the firm that the archdiocese hired.

Nienstedt came under fire in September for failing to report or discipline clergy suspected of molesting children. Those allegations sparked ongoing criminal investigations in the diocese. The allegations surfaced after Haselberger, who had resigned her post in April 2013, began leaking church documents that appear to detail efforts to shield the abusers.

One of Nienstedt’s top aides quit because of it. Late last year, the archdiocese received an unrelated allegation that Haselberger said turned up other accusations against Nienstedt, who was in Detroit at the time.

“Based on my interview with Greene Espel, as well as conversations with other interviewees, I believe the investigators have received about ten sworn statements alleging sexual impropriety on the part of the archbishop dating from his time as a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, as Bishop of New Ulm, and while coadjutor/archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” Haselberger told Commonweal magazine.

She also said that “he also stands accused of retaliating against those who refused his advances or otherwise questioned his conduct.”

In a written response to Commonweal, Nienstedt dismissed these charges as a “personal attack against me due to my unwavering stance on issues consistent with church teaching, such as opposition to so-called same-sex marriage.”

In December last year Nienstedt was accused of touching a boy’s buttocks while posing for a confirmation photo. He was not charged for that.

Nienstedt earned a reputation as a leading culture warrior in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and his major issue is with homosexuality and gay marriage.

He frequently discusses the topic using controversial language or espousing theories.

Homosexuality, he once wrote, “must be understood in the context of other human disorders: envy, malice, greed, etc.”

While bishop of the New Ulm diocese, he wrote an article warning people against watching “Brokeback Mountain.”

He decried the scenes of how “one man makes a pass at the other and within seconds the latter mounts the former in an act of wanton anal sex,” and he stated that Hollywood directors and actors “have turned their backs on God and the standards of God in their quest to make evil look so attractive.”

In 2010, he further launched a major campaign ahead of the midterm elections that focused on opposing gay rights. He told a mother who wrote to him asking for tolerance for her gay son that she should instead read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and consider her “eternal salvation.”

Nienstedt also led religious leaders in pushing for an amendment to the state constitution that would have banned gay marriage. He was defeated after losing hundreds of thousands of diocese dollars in campaign fees following the defeat of the bill.

A year later, Haselberger began publishing memos and Nienstedt has been embroiled in questions about his handling of sex abuse cases.

The lawyers are looking at if Nienstedt had a relationship with Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest with a long history of inappropriate sexual behavior who Nienstedt named to head two different parishes. Wehmeyer molested children at one of the parishes.

Nienstedt told the magazine that his relationship with Wehmeyer was “professional” and “pastoral”.

In a statement Tuesday, Nienstedt said that he informed Pope Francis’ representative to the U.S. of the charges and the investigation and that the final report would be given to the ambassador to pass along to Rome. It is unknown whether the report will go public.