It always makes me uncomfortable when I read a news story which alleges or reveals the homosexuality of a church leader who has a particularly nasty record on LGBT issues. Not because I don’t believe that these stories are possibly true. It’s more because such stories often seem to have a not-so-subtle message of “Aha! We always knew it! What a hypocrite!”
Such a story emerged this past week. MinnPost.com carried an essay by Tim Gihring with a title which explains the situation: “Does it matter whether Archbishop John Nienstedt is gay?” Nienstedt is the retired archbishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, who, in addition to having a very strong stand against marriage equality and other LGBT issues, was forced to resign when his gross mishandling of clergy sex abuse cases was revealed. Rumors have also circulated for a long time that Nienstedt himself is gay, and that he was sexually active in secret. He has denied these rumors.
Gihring’s article differs somewhat from the usual form these stories take, though. In the conclusion of his essay, Gihring writes about the “trap” in which Nienstedt seemed to be caught:
“By closing the door to homosexuality, marking its expression as the work of Satan and the most aberrant of sins, Nienstedt had nowhere to go with his own desires. He left himself no way out.”
That, to me, is such a sad set of sentences. They describe to me a gay man who did not learn to accept himself, and whose lack of self-esteem provided him no opportunity than to act out sexually in unhealthy ways, and to project his own self-hatred onto others.
Gihring’s “trap” in which he believes Niensteedt was caught is bigger than just his denial of homosexuality. Gihring speculates that Nienstedt made a deal with church officials that if he covered up sexual abuse cases, they would cover up his homosexual liaisons. Gihring writes:
“For pushing back on gays in the church, among other issues, Nienstedt would be promoted and promoted and promoted again. He would also be protected: Among the revelations in the documents unsealed last month is that the Vatican envoy to the United States quashed an investigation into Nienstedt’s homosexual activity and ordered evidence destroyed.
“The evidence that exists, in the form of corroborated witness accounts, suggests that Nienstedt spent his time in Minnesota, from 2001 to 2015, living a precarious double life: indulging his homosexual tendencies, even as he railed against them. . . .
“. . . .[T]he deal that Nienstedt long ago made for the benefit of his career — to follow the church into conservatism — now seems a kind of ecclesiastical quid pro quo: if he covered for the sins of the church, the church would cover for his. The internal investigation of him, reportedly quashed by the Vatican, had been his idea — he was that confident that his name would be cleared.”
Gehring is skating on thin ice here. He has made it seem like an agreement was made by the Vatican and Nienstedt. Unfortunately, his case is built totally on speculation. If, in fact, the Vatican did quash an investigation of Nienstedt, it is a huge leap of inference to claim that this was connected to any kind of “deal” that was arranged.
I am not defending Nienstedt’s actions, either in his mishandling of sex abuse cases or his possible homosexual liaisons. But let’s remember that these two different types of actions are qualitatively different. In the sex abuse cases, his actions did terrible harm to vulnerable people, and to the Church community. If he engaged in promiscuous, casual, or anonymous sexual encounters, any potential harm would have affected only himself and his partners, who presumably were consenting adults.
Neither am I excusing Nienstedt’s terrible record of opposing LGBT equality. He has spent an inordinate amount of energy and church money to deny LGBT people their civil rights, and as this blog’s archives show, New Ways Ministry has opposed him on all these matters.
In the case of his sexual behavior, the real culprits here are the structures of the church which actually promote such behavior: clericalism and homophobia. The privilege that clerics receive and the fear and silence that surround any discussion of homosexuality in the church create a toxic atmosphere, even for those who supposedly “benefit” from these structures.
So what’s the answer to the question of Gihring’s title question: “Does it matter whether Archbishop John Nienstedt is gay?” I think the answer is yes, it does matter because it is an integral part of who he is. I think, though, that the answer is not just important for the public to know, but, more importantly, for Nienstedt himself to know. Part of the great tragedy here is that a church system has let a man get to Nienstedt’s place in life without allowing him the freedom and security to know and accept who he is.
If any definitive evidence emerges that Nienstedt is, in fact, gay–and the only solid evidence of that would be his own admission–then I don’t think that would be an occasion to gloat over hypocrisy. It would be an occasion first to lament the pain that he must have experienced as a terribly closeted gay man. It should also be an occasion to reinvigorate our efforts to end clericalism and homophobia in the church, and all the myriad personal and structural ills they bring.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Related posts and articles:
For all Bondings 2.0 posts about Archbishop Nienstedt’s connections with LGBT issues, click here.
Minnesota Public Radio: “Archbishop authorized secret investigation of himself”
National Catholic Reporter: “Report: Minnesota Archbishop Nienstedt under scrutiny for same-sex relationships”