(KMSP) - When John Nienstedt resigned as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis last June, he left the Archdiocese in bankruptcy and under a criminal investigation that continues to this day. The criminal investigation stems from the cover-up of sexual abuse in the church. But of all the secrets Nienstedt is accused of keeping, there is one that has never been revealed: the secret in his own family.
More than 40 years ago, as a young priest, John Nienstedt, knew of an allegation involving one of his best friends and it was Nienstedt who introduced him to his victim.
Mike Hinske is from a family of devout Catholics living in Michigan. His mother, a former Dominican nun, is John Nienstedt’s cousin.
"Oh my God he was the Pope,” Hinske said of Nienstedt. “[My parents] looked up to him like there was no tomorrow."
In 1974, Nienstedt had just been ordained as a priest at a nearby parish outside Detroit and became a frequent guest for Sunday dinners and spent Christmas with the Hinske family.
"He was very close to my parents,” Hinske said. “And he would bring over other priests and my parents would entertain them, take them to dinner, buy them clothes. They were very generous and of the old belief in they were good to them, it would be their gateway to heaven."
One of the priests Nienstedt brought over was a friend from college, Father Samuel Ritchey, who showed an enthusiastic interest in Hinske, who was only 16 at the time.
On one particular night, Father Ritchey asked Hinske to give him a ride to a Catholic retreat, inviting the teenager back to his room and turning off the lights.
Hinske: "He said to me, 'I like you Mike'. I said, 'I like you too Sam, you're a nice guy'. And he said, 'No, I love you.'"
"And then he starts to undo my shirt."
"I remember a couple of times saying, 'I'm not comfortable with this, I have a girlfriend'."
"When he got to my pants, 'I don't want to do this'."
"He did molest me without a shadow of a doubt."
On the drive home, Hinske said Father Ritchey made what sounded like a stunning admission, Hinske was not the only one.
Hinske: "I said to him, how many of other kids do you do this with? And his exact words and I'll never forget it's stuck with me he said, 'I have several special friends that come from my parish.' And when he said that I knew they were kids, there were kids he was abusing."
Hinske said that night he told his parents Father Ritchey molested him and told his sister, Mary Beth, a few days later.
His mother said she tried to tell Nienstedt, who was in Rome at the time, but the two didn't discuss it until Nienstedt returned home to Michigan.
Hinske never spoke to Nienstedt directly about what happened. But remembers he suddenly felt invisible to Nienstedt.
Hinske: "He never once said 'Mike can I talk to you, would you like to talk to me?' I was like the plague to him, he never came near me."
The next year, Father Samuel Ritchey moved to Columbus, Ohio where he taught at several catholic schools until his past finally caught up with him.
The Diocese of Columbus tells the Fox 9 Investigators in 2005 it received a "credible allegation of abuse" against Father Ritchey, from 1977, three years after Hinske said he was molested. The case was too old to prosecute. Same for a second allegation from 1978, a third from 1975. All involve groping or molesting teenage boys. Ritchey was removed from the priesthood six years ago. His teaching certificate was revoked.
Hinske believes all that could've been avoided, if Nienstedt had simply listened to him.
Hinske: "I specifically begged my parents to let me talk to him. I wanted to tell him about those special friends."
Nine years ago, shortly after he became Archbishop in the Twin Cities, Nienstedt wrote a letter to Hinske, on official letter head, marked "personal".
In the letter, Nienstedt said he had lunch with Hinske's mother while on vacation in Michigan, and "she indicated to me that you are angry with me over my lack of response to the situation that you faced with Sam Ritchey some years ago."
Nienstedt wrote Hinske's "anger is misplaced." and "in point of fact, you never came to me to seek my assistance." Nienstedt doesn't mention that Mike was only 16 at the time in the letter.
THE FOX 9 INVESTIGATORS FIND NIENSTEDT IN MICHIGAN
Along the shores of Lake Huron, in Michigan is where former Archbishop John Nienstedt spends his days now after leaving the Twin Cities last year.
It's where Fox 9 found him out for his brisk morning walk.
Fox 9 reporter: "Mike strikes me as a pretty broken man. I'm wondering why you didn't do more."
Nienstedt: "Well I don't like having this conversation while I am doing my exercise. I was in Rome at the time. And only learned about it secondhand so, I've actually never discussed this with Michael."
In the letter, Nienstedt wrote he only learned what happened from Hinske's mother and sister Mary Beth. "I assumed from their remarks that you did not want to pursue any legal or ecclesial recourse. Was I supposed to go to the church authorities against your will? I didn't think that appropriate."
Hinske: "How would he know what I wanted him to do. He never talked to me. He never came up to me and said what happened what do you want me to do? I would've told him what I wanted to do, get that man away from the kids."
Fox 9 Reporter: "Why didn't you alert the authorities? Why didn't you tell them listen there's an allegation Father Ritchey molested my cousin?"
Nienstedt: "Number one, I wasn't told that he'd been molested. So there wasn't an allegation."
Fox 9 Reporter: "So what did you approach Father Ritchey about?"
Nienstedt: "I asked him if he had propositioned, which is a different thing."
Fox 9 Reporter: "Well, he groped him."
Nienstedt: "No, that's not what I was told."
What exactly Nienstedt was told, we'll never know. Mike's mother, the former nun, died six years ago.
But Mike's sister, Mary Beth, who was with her brother for the Fox 9 interview, said Mike's story hasn't changed in 43 years. And said she never told Nienstedt her bother didn't want to talk about it.
In fact, what's striking about Nienstedt's letter is how vague it is. Never mentioning the proposition of a 16-year old by a celibate priest, only describing what happened as a "situation," an "incident" or a case of "he said, she said."
Nienstedt wrote in the letter that he did confront Father Ritchey all those years ago: "he led me to believe you had completely misconstrued his words and had sensationalized them. At the time, I had no indication that Sam had such proclivities...."
Reporter on phone: "Mike Hinske claims you molested him?"
It's a story Ritchey's sticking with. Fox 9 reached him by telephone in Ohio.
Ritchey told Fox 9 he just touched Hinske's back and never his genitals.
Ritchey confirms Nienstedt talked to him, but said, "[Nienstedt] didn't treat it like a big issue." Reporter on phone: "It was almost in passing, okay."
Fox 9 reporter: "So you ask Father Ritchey if he had propositioned him, Father Ritchey says, no?"
Fox 9 reporter: "Why didn't you alert anyone else about this, why did you just take Father Ritchey at his word? And, by the way, why didn't you talk to Mike about it? Why didn't you say Mike, what happened with Father Ritchey?'
Nienstedt: "It didn't seem right at the time."
Fox 9 reporter: "Why do you think John Nienstedt didn't do more?'
Hinske: "John was strictly interested in his career. John wanted to go up the ladder."
When Nienstedt returned from Rome back then, he became Secretary to Cardinal John Dearden. Within 10 years, he'd be in charge of Sacred Heart, a major Seminary in Detroit. By 2001, he was bishop of New Ulm, MN. Nienstedt was on the fast track.
Nienstedt: "I did what I thought I needed to do at the time."
Fox 9 reporter: "What does that mean, father?"
Nienstedt: "I tried to talk to my family about this situation and get to the truth of the matter."
The question is what did Nienstedt know? And how hard did he try to find the truth?
Those are some of the same questions that would plague Nienstedt four decades later and lead to his resignation as Archbishop in the Twin Cities.
A kind of blind faith that now echoes through criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and more than 400 civil claims of sex abuse against the Archdiocese, including the case of Father Curtis Wehmeyer, who cruised parks and bookstores for sex and was treated for sex addiction.
According to those charges, Wehmeyer asked Archbishop Nienstedt a couple times, "Are you aware of my past? Are you aware of my record?"
Prosecutors say the Archbishop brushed it off, and said, "I don't have to look into that stuff."
Wehmeyer is now in prison after he went on to sexually abuse two boys.
Nienstedt: "Well, we can talk about this later."
Fox 9 reporter: "When would you like to talk about this?
Nienstedt: "You can talk to my lawyer."
Reporter: "Talk to your lawyer?"
Last week, Nienstedt changed his mind, sending the Fox 9 Investigators an email, repeating that he thought Ritchey had only said "something inappropriate," and placed his hand on Mike's knee and that he was told Mike didn't want to discuss it.
Nienstedt offers only this concession: "knowing more now than what I knew then, I can understand how my letter to my cousin's son could have been and should've been, more compassionate."
John Nienstedt lives just a few miles from Mike Hinske in Michigan, but the secret has kept these cousins continents apart.
Hinske said it should be no surprise Nienstedt couldn't protect children in the church, when so long ago, he didn't protect the children in his own family.
And yet, it's Hinske, who lives with the guilt.
Hinske: "I feel like I should have done something. I feel like I owe everyone an apology. You know. I knew it. I knew what he was doing. I tried."
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis says it was completely unaware of the Hinske case, until the Fox 9 Investigators shared Nienstedt's 2007 letter with them a couple of weeks ago. They have referred the letter to the Detroit police.
Meanwhile, the criminal investigation into the Archdiocese continues, sources tell Fox 9 Nienstedt is a central figure in that investigation.
The Archdiocese has also conducted an internal investigation of Nienstedt with two different law firms, but have yet to make the investigation public.
FULL TEXT - Nienstedt's response to Tom Lyden