By Brian Roewe
Note: This article was first published July 31, 2014 by the National Catholic Reporter.
On the same day St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt doubled down on his commitment to remain leader of his apostolic see, Catholics elsewhere in the region discussed his possible successor.
The Catholic Coalition for Church Reform announced Wednesday they had identified seven nominees believed to have the ability to lead the archdiocese into its future and likely out of the current clergy abuse scandal ensnaring the archdiocese since September.
While calls for Neinstedt to be replaced have rung louder in recent weeks, including in editorials in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The New York Times, Nienstedt on Wednesday fortified his resolve to remain archbishop "as long as the Holy Father has appointed me here," he wrote in a column in his archdiocesan newspaper.
In the past, Nienstedt cautioned local Catholics from interacting with the coalition, which includes local chapters of DignityUSA, Call to Action, and Roman Catholic Women Priests.
The group solicited nominations from area Catholics through parish handouts and its website, reaching its seven candidates after whittling down an original list first from 55 priests, then from 23. They are Fr. J. Michael Byron, Fr. Paul Feela, Fr. Paul Jaroszeski, Fr. Phillip Rask, Fr. Timothy Wozniak, current moderator of the curia and vicar general Fr. Charles Lachowitzer, and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché.
In the fall, the committee plans to hold "know the nominees" workshops. During the first half of November, an "election-like process" will produce the three names they will send to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the apostolic nuncio to the United States. Per canon law, the nuncio provides the pope three people for consideration when a bishop's see opens.
In determining eligibility, the group weeded out those over the age of 65, those from outside the area and those receiving only a single vote during a nomination process that produced a few hundred names. Also omitted were those with direct ties to the abuse scandal.
A consultant committee of four laypeople and five priests scrutinized each of the remaining candidate's abilities in a range of areas: pastoral experience, credibility, theological aptitude, and experience working in social justice areas, with multiple generations, and in interfaith and diverse partnerships.
One of the committee members, Cathy Edwards, said they weighed certain aspects higher than others, specifically "the ability to really act as shepherd and unify factions, which is quite a significant challenge in our archdiocese right now."
Although the current climate presents challenges, the nomination process preceded the scandal's beginnings and formed out of a 2012 meeting, Edwards told NCR.
In other parts of the country, laypeople have also attempted to add their voices into the decision-making process of appointing a new bishop. Groups in Albany, N.Y., and Greensburg, Pa. – both dioceses where bishops recently turned 75, the age they must submit resignation letters to the pope – have encouraged area Catholics to make known the qualities they seek in their next bishop.
The Minnesota coalition did not contact any nominees before arriving at the final seven, to whom they sent letters informing them they are viewed as competent leaders and to refrain withdrawing their names until possibly contacted by the nuncio. Calls by NCR to several of the nominees were not returned.
Piché stands out as the lone bishop among the remaining nominees and the only one receiving a nomination despite the group's exclusion of clergy involved in the abuse scandal. Piché's name appears infrequently in the depositions taken of various church officials but appears 23 times in the affidavit of Jennifer Haselberger, who listed the bishop among the reasons she previously rejected the notion that Nienstedt resign.
"It was and is my opinion that the worst possible situation from a child protection standpoint would be one where Bishop Piché would assume even temporary governance of the Archdiocese," she wrote. "I say this because, in my experience, Bishop Piché was a bigger obstacle than Father [Kevin] McDonough to any sort of movement towards truly implementing the requirements of the Charter."
In the affidavit, Haselberger described Piché as advising a pastor to "move slowly" on the case of Harry Walsh – laicized in 2012 after past accusations of child sexual abuse were discovered in his file – and advocating for several priests with known boundary violations.
In addition, Piché's time as pastor (1997-2003) of the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul overlapped with the period Fr. Curtis Wehmeyer served as its associate pastor (2001-2006). However, Piché had moved on to the Church of All Saints in Lakeville by the time Wehmeyer, convicted in 2012 of child sexual abuse and possessing child pornography, made advances toward two young men at a local bookstore in May 2004.
Edwards told NCR she was unaware of Piché's involvement and that the committee concluded its work shortly before Haselberger's affidavit became public.
In the group's press release, board member Paula Ruddy acknowledges "as lay Catholics, we can't actually elect our leadership, but we want to raise our voices as concerned Christians who want a sustainable, healthy, church."
Edwards said awareness is one part of the effort that one day could lead to Catholics having a different expectation toward their role in the selection of their bishop.
"I think what I really hope to see is continued positive progress of the baptized to be aware of and claim our responsibility for helping the direction of our church," she said.
Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.
NCR Editor's Note: This story was updated to clarify the process the coalition took to nominate possible candidates and to contact those whom it selected.