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New archbishop seeks way to rebuild trust in the church

ST. PAUL -- In the month since he was appointed interim leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Most Rev. Bernard Hebda has surmised a few things: the situation is complex, the legal issues are challenging and rebuilding will t...

Archbishop Bernard Hebda talks about the future of the church at the Chancery in St. Paul on Friday, July 10, 2015. He was appointed by the Vatican as the apostolic administrator for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in June. His position is temporary. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)


ST. PAUL -- In the month since he was appointed interim leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Most Rev. Bernard Hebda has surmised a few things: the situation is complex, the legal issues are challenging and rebuilding will take time.

But Hebda, officially known as the apostolic administrator, remains optimistic.

“I see so many good things going on. But at the same time, I know there are people who have been hurt, who have lost some trust,” Hebda said in an interview Friday. “So we need to be able to respond to their needs and really the need for the church to be that healthy institution she needs to be to do Christ’s work.”


The Vatican appointed Hebda, 55, last month when Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché resigned.

Hebda, who inherited a legal and emotional firestorm, is viewed by some as a fixer.

He has served since 2013 as co-adjutor archbishop in the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and is slated to succeed Archbishop John Myers upon Myers’ July 2016 retirement.

A canon and civil lawyer, Hebda has an impressive résumé - an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a law degree from Columbia Law School - and was appointed to his Newark post at a time when that archdiocese was also facing criticism for church leadership’s handling of abusive priests.

Hebda’s appointment in the Twin Cities is temporary. He’ll remain in the position until Pope Francis appoints a permanent archbishop, and Hebda will continue his work in New Jersey simultaneously.

Hebda said he’s been familiarizing himself with the archdiocese’s current crisis: bankruptcy, criminal charges, an investigation into Nienstedt, and a Catholic community reeling from revelations of clergy sex abuse and allegations of a cover-up.

“It’s going to be necessary to get to know the people involved and to get to know it deeply so we understand what are those experiences, what are the hurts, what’s the source of pride in the local church, to be able to really chart a course to be able to move forward,” Hebda said.

The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in January, citing an operating deficit and pending lawsuits claiming clergy sexual abuse.


In early June, the Ramsey County attorney’s office filed criminal charges against the archdiocese, saying it failed to protect children from a predatory priest. Prosecutors also filed a companion civil case, asking the court to require the archdiocese to eliminate conditions that allowed the cover-up and order any other remedies the court deems appropriate.

When the child-endangerment charges were filed, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said, “We are alleging a disturbing institutional and systemic pattern of behavior committed by the highest levels of leadership … over the course of decades.”

Hebda said the allegations of criminal activity have yet to be proven but acknowledged that children have been abused over the years, and he acknowledged weaknesses in institutional systems or personal integrity.

He pledged to “collaborate with others in the community to make sure that our practices are indeed best practices and that we’re doing everything we can so that 20 years from now, some prosecutor isn’t making that same kind of accusation.”

The criminal allegations add a wrinkle to the bankruptcy case, in which the archdiocese is relying on insurance coverage to supply settlement funds due to victims.

The insurance companies have questioned their coverage obligations; the criminal case - which alleges church officials willingly protected a priest who abused children - could jeopardize the church’s claims to coverage since many policies won’t cover intentional or criminal acts.

So the archdiocese must fight the criminal charges at the emotional expense of parishioners, or admit to the allegations and put the institution’s finances at risk.

Hebda said it’s a challenging scenario.


“I’m grateful we have great experts who are helping us through that,” Hebda said. “I’ve been in this (conference) room on a number of occasions when we have the bankruptcy lawyer sitting in your seat and the criminal lawyer across the table and (we’re) trying as best we can to chart a course that helps us to be true to who we are and also to be able to help.”

The archbishop has also been digesting an investigative report on Nienstedt, which he said is “extensive.” Hebda said he is still trying to figure out how to publicly deal with it.

In 2014, Nienstedt ordered an independent investigation in response to allegations that he had past inappropriate sexual relationships or contact with other men - something he’s denied.

A recent report from Minnesota Public Radio - based on interviews with people close to the inquiry - suggested that Nienstedt interfered with the investigation after initial findings seemed to corroborate the allegations of misconduct.

“I know there’s great interest in (the investigation) and so many people have called for a release of the documents,” Hebda said. “I certainly feel that for us to move forward, there’s going to have to be an accounting of some sort.”

On the whole, the Twin Cities archdiocese is “healthy” and headed in the right direction, Hebda said. Strides have been made in the areas of child protection and bankruptcy, and “I was delighted to learn I didn’t have to come in and turn a ship around,” he said.

He plans to continue meeting local clergy and the people of the church to begin the process of rebuilding. On Sunday morning, Hebda will celebrate his first public Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, after which he plans a meet-and-greet with parishioners.


The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service

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