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Battle Creek community upset over arrival of controversial priest

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A child sex abuse scandal from Minnesota has made its way to Michigan – and the Battle Creek community isn’t happy.

Archbishop John Nienstedt, the former leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, started working at St. Philip Catholic Church in Battle Creek last week.

Nienstedt volunteered to step in while the current priest undergoes treatment for epilepsy, according to the Diocese of Kalamazoo.

Nienstedt resigned from the Twin Cities Archdiocese in June after county prosecutors accused the Church of failing to protect children from sex abuse by the clergy.

Curtis Wehmeyer, the priest convicted of molesting two boys, is now in prison.

Nienstedt has not been charged.

The Kalamazoo Gazette spoke with Minnesota attorney Patrick Wall, a former Catholic priest and monk, who said Nienstedt is unfit for the role.

“The entire nation’s Roman Catholic child sexual abuse scandal just moved to Battle Creek,” Wall said. “He negates everything the Church stands for,” Wall added. “Are not the same issues which caused him to resign as Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis the same issues to be reviewed for fitness to minister in Battle Creek?”

Prosecutors announced a settlement in the civil suit against the archdiocese, but the criminal case is still pending.

“I resigned as archbishop in order for the local church to have a new beginning as they come out of bankruptcy and not because of something I had done wrong,” Niendstedt told parishioners on Sunday, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The scandal in Minneapolis, which began in fall 2013, drew national attention after Minnesota Public Radio News found Nienstedt “authorized” extra payments to priests who admitted abusing children and failed to report these alleged crimes to the police. The state then opened a three-year window for victims of sexual abuse to file a lawsuit, 400 of whom have come forward, according to the Star Tribune.

The Gazette reports that members of the community – Catholic or not – are concerned about the safety of their children as a result of Nienstedt’s placement in the church.

Msgr. Michael Osborn, Vicar General of the Kalamazoo Diocese, released a letter to the parents of St. Joseph School, noting that the group did not hire or appoint Nienstedt, but rather Fr. John Fleckenstein, who’s absent from the church for treatment, made the arrangement. The group also said its bishop approved the arrangement and made extra steps to ensure Nienstedt was a “priest in good standing.”

Kalamazoo Diocese spokeswoman Victoria Cessna told the Gazette all volunteers who work with children at the church undergo a safety awareness training and a background check. She added that the church does not know of any pending allegations against Nienstedt.

The Battle Creek Enquirer spoke with Brenda Hunt, head of the Battle Creek Community Foundation and a church parishioner:

“This is inappropriate and a debate and a risk we don’t need to take in our community for our children,” Hunt said.

She told the Gazette that the foundation has received a host of calls from concerned residents, some of whom have expressed uncertainty in contributing funds to the church to support scholarships and grants.

Samantha Pearl, a Battle Creek resident and parishioner at St. Philip Church, wrote a column in the Battle Creek Enquirer on Saturday, expressing discontent and worry with the placement of Nienstedt in the city:

"As a victim of a child sex predator, I am infuriated at your ignorant and irresponsible behavior. Victims of sex abuse suffer a pattern of abuse after the sexual abuse, perpetrated by our parents and pastoral leadership, including the inherent message that we will not be protected, that the crime is not heinous, that the rights and reputation of the perpetrator take precedence over the rights and protection of the victim. You will not silently perpetrate the continuation of these crimes in my parish. I am deeply grieved by the leadership of the Diocese and the need to speak publicly given the lack of integrity and Godly leadership shown by you, by the Diocese, and by the pastor in my parish. "

– Jennifer Calfas, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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