The Clock is Ticking for the Archbishop

Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, was rewarded for his cover-up of sexually abusive priests by being appointed to a prestigious Vatican post in Rome. Bernard Law should have been sentenced to a few years in an American jail.

Under a new pope, the clock is ticking for wayward covert-up bishops, however. And there is quite a list to choose from. Perhaps we should hang their photos in our church vestibules, if not the local post office.

Since I am partial to my native state of Michigan, I would begin with John Clayton Nienstedt, the eighth and current Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A Motown boy, he attended and was later rector of my first alma mater: Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.

John Clayton has a thing about gays. Shortly after becoming Twin Cities Archbishop, he discontinued the gay pride prayer service that was held at St. Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis. John had earlier described homosexuality as a “result of psychological trauma” that “must be understood in the context of other human disorders: envy, malice, greed, etc.” In December 2013, Archbishop Nienstedt voluntarily stepped aside from all public ministry while police investigated an allegation that he touched a boy on his buttocks. In March 2014, he returned to public ministry after an extensive investigation found no buttocks-touching evidence against him. So much for a bit of general background……

The archbishop is on my list, however, not because of his gay paranoia but his history of sexual abuse cover-ups.

Archbishop John Nienstedt maintained a relatively low profile on clergy sexual abuse until early October 2013, when he began re-arranging archdiocesan deck-chairs, reacting to charges of covering-up evidence of child pornography on a priest’s computer inside his own chancery. The accusation came from attorney Jennifer Haselberger, former chancellor for canonical affairs for the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese. She had earlier stated that the archdiocese had overlooked for nearly a decade the sexual compulsions of another priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, and did not warn parishioners. Wehmeyer is now in prison, convicted of sexually abusing two boys and possession of child pornography.

Nienstedt, who came to St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2008, said he had no knowledge of any cover-ups during his administration. Jennifer Haselberger, had warned him in 2009, however, not to promote a priest with a known history of sexual misconduct. Nienstedt reacted by making him pastor of the parish, where had had already been parish administrator. The priest then continued to abuse children in that parish.

Haselberger resigned because of the archdiocesan leader’s refusal to act on her allegations of cover-ups which she said had made it impossible for her to continue in her position with any sense of personal integrity.

Having lost confidence in him, lay people and priests in the archdiocese began to call for Nienstedt’s resignation. St. Paul Attorney Jeff Anderson, well-known for representing victims of sexual abuse, accused the archdiocese of a longstanding and ongoing cover-up of child sex abuse, going back to when Harry Flynn was the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop.

Nienstedt’s top deputy, Father Peter Laird, stepped down as vicar general of the archdiocese in October 2013; and a couple weeks after that former Archbishop Harry Flynn resigned as chair of the board of trustees at the University of St. Thomas. Peter Laird had also told Archbishop Nienstedt that he too should resign.

More serious accusations emerged in November 2014, concerning Clarence Vavra, a priest and an admitted serial pedophile. For almost 19 years top ranking archdiocesan officials knew that Vavra admitted sexually assaulting kids. For at least a year and a half (possibly longer), Archbishop John Nienstedt knew about Vavra’s admitted sexual abuse of children. For years, due to the callousness of Nienstedt and others, this admitted predator priest continued to live and work with little or no supervision. He was sent from parish to parish, and therefore given, at each new location, a fresh group of children to potentially molest.

On Wednesday April 2, 2014, Archbishop John Nienstedt testified about his knowledge of clergy sexual abuse. Nienstedt testified that his former vicar general, Kevin McDonough, was aware of the details of wayward clergy while he was not. Nienstedt’s four-hour deposition came to an abrupt end, surprisingly however, with the archbishop walking out when asked to turn over the archdiocese’s files of credibly accused priests.

In his own deposition, two weeks after Nienstedt’s, Kevin McDonough denied having a conversation with Archbishop Nienstedt in which he instructed the archbishop not to write down sensitive information – a conversation Nienstedt, during his deposition, said happened.

– Sir Walter Scott


Even Popes Make Mistakes

Some church anniversaries are best celebrated with new historical-theological insight. We had such a special anniversary this week on Thursday: the twentieth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, of 22 May 1994, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (on the ordination of priests). That document theoretically closed the door to women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope John Paul famously explained it this way:

Priestly ordination, which hands on the office entrusted by Christ to his Apostles of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the faithful, has in the Catholic Church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone….

When the question of the ordination of women arose in the Anglican Communion, Pope Paul VI, out of fidelity to his office of safeguarding the Apostolic Tradition, and also with a view to removing a new obstacle placed in the way of Christian unity, reminded Anglicans of the position of the Catholic Church: “She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church….

I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

A closed book or still an open book? Just as we have nine gifts of the Holy Spirit, I suggest nine points for reflection, based on contemporary historical and biblical studies:

(1) Jesus chose men and women as his disciples, with no indication that one sex was superior to the other. Women disciples in fact played a major role as proclaimers of Jesus raised from the dead.

(2) As close friends and followers of their teacher and friend, it would seem that both men and women were gathered with Jesus for their last meal with him. And there were probably a few children scampering around as well.

(3) The historical Jesus had no understanding of ordination. Jesus did not ordain anyone, at any time. In his day ordination did not exist. It was a later creation of the Christian community, as a way of ensuring a sort of quality control in their leadership.

(4) There were far more apostles than just “The Twelve.” Some apostles, like Paul, were not at the “Last Supper.” “The Twelve” was more symbolic for Jewish Christians who understood Jesus creating the New Israel under twelve just as the Old Israel had twelve tribes. Even in the four gospels, the number is somewhat ambiguous, with different gospel writers giving different names for the same individual, or some apostles mentioned in one gospel not being mentioned in another.

(5) The early Christian apostles were messengers sent out to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. And of course – just as there were men and women disciples, there were indeed men and women apostles. Certainly among them Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he sends greetings to Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionary apostles with their husbands or brothers.

(6) Among church historians there is a strong consensus that the people who presided at Eucharist in the early church were the heads of households; and we know from biblical studies that there were women who were heads of these households as well. Did women preside at Eucharist in the early church? My understanding today is that they certainly did.

(7) When I study the research of historical theologians like Gary Macy in his book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West, and Marianne Micks, writing in The Ordination of Women: Pro and Con, I have no doubts that in fact – in our tradition – women in earlier times were ordained as priests and bishops.

(8) It is appropriate that church authorities formulate clear statements of belief. It is equally important – necessary in fact – that church authorities acknowledge that official statements of belief (i.e. church teaching) have changed in the past; can change in the present; and will change in the future, as we grow in our understanding of our tradition and become aware of changes in human understanding, culture, and language.

(9) Twenty years after Ordinatio Sacerdotalis we are reminded of what I see as the major challenge confronting us as contemporary Roman Catholics: to develop effective ways of sharing new insights and information and effective ways of doing that in respectful and open and constructive conversation.

Yes…..just like you and me…..popes (even recently canonized ones) have made mistakes in official pronouncements. Like all professionals, they are always in need of historical updating and ongoing theological education and formation. No one is ever too old to learn….


LCWR: Courageous Women VS CDF: Fearful Men

An Historic and Very Contemporary Reflection


I remember the event, like it was yesterday. On October 7, 1979, in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Sister Theresa Kane, R.S.M., president of the LCWR, issued a formal plea to Pope John Paul II, during his apostolic visitation.

For me the most relevant part of her speech was this:

As I share this privileged moment with you, Your Holiness, I urge you to be mindful of the intense suffering and pain which is part of the life of many women in these United States. I call upon you to listen with compassion and to hear the call of women who comprise half of humankind.

As women we have heard the powerful messages of our Church addressing the dignity and reverence for all persons. As women we have pondered upon these words. Our contemplation leads us to state that the Church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our Church.

I urge you, Your Holiness, to be open to and respond to the voices coming from the women of this country who are desirous of serving in and through the Church as fully participating members.

The Pope grumbled. Conservative Catholics were enraged. Later Sr. Teresa Kane reflected on the event in these words:

As president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, it was my privilege to extend greetings to the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, last October when he visited this country for the first time. I thought it appropriate to pledge our solidarity with the Pope as he called our attention to the serious responsibilities we have to our sisters and brothers who live in poverty and destitution. I also sensed the need of some women to articulate their growing concern about being included in all ministries within the church. Within my own heart there were only sentiments of profound fidelity, honesty, and sincerity to our God and to our Church. As a result of the greeting, a few congregations withdrew from the conference. Through that experience LCWR became more public; the membership gained new responsibilities. Reflection papers commissioned by the Conference will analyze “the voice of the faithful” as found in the thousands of letters received.

In the spring of 2012, the CDF issued a statement accusing LCWR of promoting “radical feminist themes” and “corporate dissent.” On April 30, 2014, the CDF’s Cardinal Gerhard Müller, accused U.S. nuns of not abiding to the harsh and unjust reform agenda imposed on them by the Vatican. In addition, the document personally attacked the well-known and greatly respected woman theologian Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ.

The Vatican mandate forced upon the nuns is a prime example of how fearful, chauvinistic, and manipulative church leaders can misuse and abuse their power to diminish the voice and witness of prophetic women.

It is time to act.


Faith in the Public Square

Another Voice is back! This week my final biblical Christological reflection: Pentecost.

The early followers of Jesus were of course observant Jews. We really cannot understand the Christian scriptures correctly unless we see them anchored in a Jewish (Christian) background. The men and women who were Jesus’ disciples had celebrated Passover with him in Jerusalem. Now (fifty days after Passover), as observant Jews they observed Shavuot without him physically present.

Shavuot commemorates God’s giving the Torah and establishing a covenant with the entire nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. The holiday (holyday) was a great Jewish pilgrimage festival in Jerusalem. The word Shavuot means weeks, and the festival of Shavuot marked the completion of the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Hellenistic Jews gave it the name “Pentecost.”

The author of Acts of Apostles gives this description of Jewish Christians gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate their Jewish festival of Pentecost (Shavuot).

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven…Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs… (Acts 2:5, 9-11)

In other words, Jews from the Diaspora as well as locals had gathered in Jerusalem. They came from as far away as today’s Iran, Turkey, and North Africa. Each speaking as well his or her own local language.

According to Acts of Apostles, Jesus’ disciples were gathered in a home when a strange, wind-like sound filled the air and tongues of fire appeared above their heads; and they “were filled with the Holy Spirit.” They began speaking in strange languages other than their own. Some observers thought that they were drunk; but one of the disciples, Peter, pointed out that it was early in the morning, much too early for people to be drunk. This dramatic episode appears nowhere else in the Christian scriptures.

As those early followers of Jesus, gathered in prayer and Christian solidarity, commemorated God’s forming ancient Israel under Moses’ leadership, they were overwhelmed by the deep realization of their own solidarity in the person and message of Jesus. They were deeply shaken by a group faith experience. The author of Acts describes their Pentecost experience in powerful images of wind, fire, and emotional murmuring (speaking in tongues).

I often think of the Pentecost event in connection with a much earlier biblical event we read about in Genesis 11:1-9: the primeval story of the Tower of Babel. There the ancient biblical author gives a dramatic explanation for human disunity and all the consequences flowing from it. The Tower of Babel tells of human arrogance and exaggerated self-sufficiency, in which people chose to create their own world apart from God.

Now compare Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and Pentecost (Acts2:1-1). It is like a before and after scenario. In his life and ministry, Jesus healed the divisions created by human weakness. Through the power of his Spirit in the community (which we later call the church) people who were once alienated from each other are drawn together. Confusion and division are replaced by understanding and cooperation. Distrust makes room for the Spirit’s gifts of harmony and peace.

The concrete images of the Pentecost event? I would say highly imaginative; but I stress that getting tangled up in that discussion can blind us to the MEANING of Pentecost.

I very much like the explanation of Joseph Donders (The Peace of Jesus, Orbis Books, Maryknoll 1983).

Donders compared the dramatic effects of Pentecost to fireworks. “But fireworks never carry the day. Fireworks lit up the night very beautifully but only for a fleeting moment. . . Before the story of Pentecost in Jerusalem was over, the apostles were in the streets working. . . breaking through the structures that kept them and the world in which they lived captive in all kinds of undesirable bondages.”

At Pentecost, the men and women of the early church energized and motivated by the Spirit, realized their mission was living and witnessing to their faith in the public square.

When we once again celebrate Pentecost, on June 8, 2014, may we be similarly energized and motivated!

(Next week some comments about church leadership and women religious. That indeed is about faith in the public square….)