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'Vos estis' investigation finds Nienstedt behavior ‘imprudent’ but not canonical crime

Archbishop John Nienstedt, the former archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has been cleared of canonical criminal conduct by an investigation under the norms of Vos estis lux mundi, the archdiocese announced Friday. 

But in response to “imprudent” actions by Nienstedt during his tenure as archbishop, the archbishop has been banned from residing in his former archdiocesan province, or exercising public ministry outside of his current diocese of residence without prior approval. 

Archbishop John Nienstedt. Screenshot from @ArchdioceseSPM YouTube channel.

In a statement released Jan. 5,  Archbishop Bernard Hebda said that an investigation opened after the promulgation of Pope Francis’ landmark 2019 legislation had concluded that “evidence available did not support a finding that any conduct on the part of Archbishop Nienstedt could be judged as a delict.”

However, Hebda said in the release, the investigation — undertaken independent of the archdiocese — had concluded that several instances of “imprudent” actions by Nienstedt had been brought to light. 

“While none of these instances, either standing alone or taken together warrant any further canonical investigation or penal sanctions, it was determined by Pope Francis that the following  administrative actions are justified,” Hebda wrote, listing three prohibitions placed on his predecessor.

Nienstedt may not exercise any public ministry in the province of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which covers the states of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, nor may he reside in the territory.

The archbishop is further prohibited from exercising public ministry “in any way” outside the diocese of his current residence, believed to be in Michigan, without the “express authorization” of his local bishop, and only after informing the Dicastery for Bishops in Rome.


Nienstedt left office in 2015 following a series of allegations of failure to deal appropriately with instances of clerical sexual abuse by priests of the archdiocese. After his resignation, allegations of misconduct were made against the archbishop personally. 

Nienstedt is the first U.S. bishop to have prohibitions on his ministry publicly imposed following an investigation under the norms of Vos estis lux mundi.

The former bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, Michael Bransfield, was the subject of several restrictions and sanctions following his enforced resignation from office in 2018, but the investigation into Bransfield preceded the promulgation of Vos estis

In 2021, another former Minnesota prelate, Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, resigned at the request of the pope following a Vos estis investigation into allegations against his governance of the diocese. But after Hoeppner’s resignation, no restrictions were announced in relation to the bishop.

Following Nienstedt’s departure and the arrival of Archbishop Bernard Hebda in the archdiocese, first as apostolic administrator and later as archbishop, St. Paul - Minneapolis filed for bankruptcy in response to the volume of lawsuits brought by victims of clerical sexual abuse.

John Clayton Nienstedt was born March 18, 1947, in Detroit, Michigan. The second child in a family of six, he was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1974.

He served as priest-secretary to Detroit’s Cardinal John Dearden from 1977 to 1980, when he began a five-year stint as a minor official at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

In 1987, he was designated rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, where he served until 1994.

He was named an auxiliary bishop of the Detroit archdiocese in 1996,  until 2001, when he was appointed bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm in western Minnesota.

In 2007, he was chosen to serve as the coadjutor archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He took over the archdiocese’s governance in 2008, following the retirement of Archbishop Harry Flynn.

In April 2013,  Jennifer Haselberger resigned as the chancellor of canonical affairs for the Twin Cities archdiocese. In September that year, she publicly accused the archdiocese of mishandling abuse allegations.

In October 2013, Nienstedt announced the creation of an independent safe environment and ministerial standards task force.

In December 2013, the archbishop voluntarily removed himself from ministry as local authorities investigated an allegation of inappropriate touching while photographs were taken at a confirmation ceremony at the Cathedral of St. Paul in 2009. 

In March 2014, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office announced that the archbishop would not face charges related to the alleged incident and Nienstedt resumed his duties.

In April 2014, the lay task force issued a 53-page report accusing the archdiocese of “serious shortcomings.” 

In July 2014, Commonweal Magazine reported that Nienstedt was “being investigated for ‘multiple allegations’ of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other men.” 

The archbishop denied the allegations. “I have never engaged in sexual misconduct and certainly have not made any sexual advances toward anyone,” he said.

The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2015 amid claims of clerical abuse dating back to the 1940s.

Nienstedt led the archdiocese until June 15, 2015, when he resigned at the age of 68. 

His resignation came 10 days after prosecutors presented criminal charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children. The charges related to the archdiocese’s handling of the case of former priest Curtis Wehmeyer, who had received a five-year jail sentence in 2013 for sexual abuse. Prosecutors later dropped the charges.

Nienstedt said that he had resigned “in order to give the archdiocese a new beginning amidst the many challenges we face.”

He added: “I leave with a clear conscience knowing that my team and I have put in place solid protocols to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults.”

He was succeeded by Archbishop Bernard Hebda, then coadjutor Archbishop of Newark, who arrived as apostolic administrator until being named Archbishop of St.Paul and Minneapolis in 2016.

On the same day that Nienstedt resigned, Pope Francis also accepted the resignation of auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché. 

The archdiocese announced in June 2023 that Piché was returning to serve as Hebda’s vicar for retired priests.

The archdiocese said that before issuing the invitation, Hebda had consulted “a number of individuals who had been personally impacted by the abuse crisis and other members of the community who have been involved in assisting the archdiocese in its ongoing outreach to survivors and in its work to provide safe environments in our schools and churches.”

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