Ten Years On – Healing a Wounded Church and the Work that Remains October 11, 2023

Many of us who worked in the chancery office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis remember vividly the date of September 23, 2013. This was the date that Minnesota Public Radio published a detailed investigative article regarding Curtis Wehmeyer and the multiple red flags not heeded by Archdiocesan officials. Wehmeyer, now defrocked, went on to sexually abuse multiple minors of the same family. The article spread through the Twin Cities community like wildfire resulting in anger, dismay, and many questions on the part of Catholics and clergy in the Archdiocese. I had just begun serving as delegate for safe environment the month before the bombshell article broke and had plenty of questions myself which I began asking of those in leadership above me. MPR followed that fall with multiple other articles which resulted in a near implosion of the Archdiocese in the months and years that followed: the vicar general resigned; the Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy; in 2015 the Archdiocese was criminally charged for failure to protect children; and shortly after, Archbishop John Nienstedt and Bishop Lee Piche resigned.

I want to bring you up to speed now to this fall – ten years after the scandal first broke in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (ASPM). Earlier this month, the Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing of the University of St. Thomas School of Law (IRJH) and Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN) of Washington D.C. cohosted the first in-person National Catholic Restorative Justice (RJ) Conference in Minneapolis. Among the 180+ who attended the conference, the Spirit’s presence could be palpably felt. The Archdiocese of St. Paul, along with several other organizations, was a cosponsor of the conference. It is a testament to God’s restorative grace that ASPM could move from the ashes to a national leader in the use of restorative justice and restorative practices to help foster healing in the wake of the wounds of clergy abuse and leadership failures in the Church. The settlement that was eventually reached between the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office (RCAO) and ASPM importantly contained two restorative justice provisions which led to the positive proliferation of restorative justice within the Archdiocese, at the University of St. Thomas Law School, and beyond. These provisions also led to two Archdiocesan restorative justice positions, including a role in which I serve as liaison for restorative justice and healing.

My work in restorative justice has been both a call within a call and a gift. Collaborating with victim-survivors and others impacted by abuse is humbling and consequential. I find the courage and resilience of victim-survivors to be extraordinary and their wisdom about what needs to yet occur in the Church a sure light, illuminating the path ahead. Today, my work in restorative justice more often than not takes me beyond ASPM – as my colleagues and I are often contacted by dioceses and others in the Church who have suffered harm and are yearning for healing. Having now wrapped our conference in Minneapolis, as I write this I am in Missouri where my colleagues and I will present to a group of clergy about the need for trauma informed care in the Church and the positive potential of RJ to bring accompaniment and healing. Below, I briefly list several important items that need further critical attention in order to foster greater accountability and healing in the Catholic Church. Much of what I offer has been conveyed through multiple conferences and gatherings I have attended over the last several years.

Restorative Justice in the Catholic Church: One of the highlights of the recent restorative justice gathering in Minneapolis was the panel on clergy abuse and healing, particularly because it included two victim-survivors who spoke from their hearts about the effects of their abuse. A recent statement of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was quoted by multiple panelists who agreed that no victim should be left wounded and in the dark begging for justice in the Catholic Church. Having witnessed the effective use of RJ over the last several years, broader knowledge and use of RJ to help heal the vast wounds that remain is vital for a more authentic and whole Catholic communion. RJ not only finds a willing partner in Catholic Social Teaching, when thoughtfully paired a rich dynamism emerges toward greater restoration in the Church and beyond. The folks who gathered for the RJ conference realized that we are part of grass roots movement in the Catholic Church that has great potential to bear good fruit in the coming years.

Clericalism and Accountability: Pope Francis has referred to clericalism as a scourge and indeed it is. It results in a lack of accountability and a narrow and insular Church culture that continues to self-wound and not learn from past mistakes. Too many bishops and clergy are not held to account for failures of leadership or misconduct and the Vatican is often too slow to respond when these issues emerge. The document Vos Estis Lux Mundi (VELM) needs significant reform and important structural foundations and resources to be effective. One panelist at our conference referred to VELM as more akin to a flickering10-watt bulb than a bright light. Too much is at stake to not get this right. Many conferences I have attended included robust calls for an expanded role for the laity in Church governance as a way of promoting greater accountability in the Catholic Church.

Seminary Formation: Multiple conferences also noted that improving seminary formation is critical to ensuring a healthier and holier Church. During this time in the United States of a renewed focus on the Eucharist, seminarians need to be formed to live and exercise their ministry as humble servant leaders whose lives are generously poured out for others. Christ’s authority was always oriented to healing and service – never to exclude or cast out. Issues in seminary with regard to spiritual formation and human formation need to be approached with rigor and great care. The Church cannot afford to pass through marginal priestly candidates just as it cannot abide allowing abusive or predatory priests to remain in active ministry. Again, too much is at stake to not embrace vigilance in these areas.

Transparency: This is another important area of needed improvement in the Catholic Church. Often when a bishop or priest resigns or is removed from their assignment, no reason is given for their departure. This leaves the faithful in a diocese or a parish bewildered and at times dismayed. Greater prudent transparency is needed in the Church, which in turn fosters greater accountability. The lack of transparency appears rooted in a culture of clericalism which holds the reins of power and information close to the vest rather than responsibly bringing to light the circumstances surrounding a resignation or removal of clergy. As an example of where the trifecta of clericalism, accountability, and transparency troublingly merge, I end where I began, in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It is almost ten years since the investigation of former Archbishop John Nienstedt was first commenced and there is still no public resolution of this matter. This privation of a just and transparent resolution is a grave offense against all the parties involved and against the nature of justice and integrity in the Catholic Church.

Rays of Christ’s light and healing were clearly seen at our recent National Catholic Restorative Justice Conference, but much work remains to build a healthier and holier Catholic Church.

Fr. Daniel Griffith