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Jul 21, 5:34 PM EDT

Lawyers investigating a Minnesota archbishop in 2014 found compelling and credible allegations from nearly a dozen people that he engaged in sexual misconduct and harassment, then retaliated when his advances were rejected



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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Lawyers investigating a Minnesota archbishop in 2014 found compelling and credible allegations from nearly a dozen people that he engaged in sexual misconduct and harassment, then retaliated when his advances were rejected, according to an internal church document made public this week.

Although Archbishop John Nienstedt eventually stepped down under fire as head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he remains a priest in good standing and less than two weeks ago led Masses at a conservative Catholic leadership conference in California.

The July 2014 memo came from the Rev. Daniel Griffith, a key archdiocese leader for ensuring the safety of children. Minnesota prosecutors released it Wednesday as part of an update on civil and criminal cases against the archdiocese over its handling of clergy abuse cases.

Nienstedt became the subject of an investigation into his own conduct in February 2014 as he was under fire for his handling of a priest who would eventually go to prison and be kicked out of the priesthood for molesting three boys.

In his memo, Griffith raised concerns that Nienstedt's "social relationship" with that priest, the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, had clouded his judgment.

But he also detailed much broader findings by lawyers for a Minneapolis firm the archdiocese hired: 10 sworn statements from people alleging "sexual misconduct; sexual harassment; reprisals in response to the rejection of unwanted advances; and excessive drinking."

Many allegations dated to when Nienstedt served in Detroit. An 11th affidavit came in later. And the lawyers had at least 24 more leads to pursue, he wrote.

Griffith called the findings compelling and said key church leaders felt Nienstedt should resign.

Nienstedt issued a statement through his lawyer saying the "claims regarding alleged misbehavior involving me ... were and still are absolutely and entirely false." He said the allegations are payback for his public opposition to same-sex marriage and to admitting openly gay men to the priesthood, and in retribution for decisions that he made as his accusers' superior.

"I am a heterosexual man who has been celibate my entire life," Nienstedt said. "I have never solicited sex, improperly touched anyone and have not used my authority to cover up, or even try to cover up, any allegation of sexual abuse."

Nienstedt had previously stepped down from public ministry in 2013 after he was accused of improperly touching a boy's buttocks during a public photo session following a 2009 confirmation ceremony. He returned to ministry a few months later after prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence for charges.

Griffith turned down an interview request but said in an email to The Associated Press that he stands by the memo.

Investigative documents released Wednesday detailed some examples of questionable behavior by Nienstedt:

- One priest recounted a four-year history of Nienstedt building a relationship with him when Nienstedt was bishop of the New Ulm, Minnesota, Diocese. In 2004, he said, Nienstedt invited him to spend time at his home near Lake Huron in Michigan. The priest said he went only reluctantly. On his last night there, he said, Nienstedt tried to massage his neck while they drove back to his home from dinner. The priest regarded it as an unwelcome sexual advance.

- A former seminarian who had been part of a delegation of New Ulm Diocese high schoolers described a 2005 World Youth Day trip to Germany with Nienstedt. He said he and the only other boy in the group got wet running through the rain with Nienstedt to a pub for lunch. Afterward, at Nienstedt's suggestion, they went to Nienstedt's hotel room, where the bishop took off all his clothes and changed into dry ones in the presence of the boys, while the boys took off all their clothes and put on hotel robes.

- An older St. Paul archdiocese priest spoke about concerns over Nienstedt's frequent visits to St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul. The archbishop would stay overnight there even though his official residence was nearby, he said. The investigator's notes said the priest was concerned about those visits "and his rather obvious and awkward relationships" with the young men who were studying to become priests.

Nienstedt resigned as head of the archdiocese in June 2015, 10 days after the archdiocese was criminally charged. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi reiterated Wednesday that he didn't have enough evidence to charge any individual church officials.

Nienstedt's attorney, Jon Hopeman, said the archbishop recently became an outside consultant to the Napa Institute Foundation, which put on the leadership conference where he recently led Masses, to edit documents on religious topics for publication. Hopeman said Nienstedt lives within the Diocese of Santa Rosa in northern California, with the permission of the local bishop who also works on this project.

Griffith's memo accused the Vatican's emissary in Washington of ordering Minnesota church leaders to wrap up the investigation without pursuing additional leads. He also said the emissary, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, ordered the church leaders to destroy copies of a letter they had written disagreeing with his instructions.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, declined comment Thursday.

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