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Minnesota archbishop accused of 'inappropriate touching' of boy

By David Bailey

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - The Roman Catholic archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on Tuesday said in a statement Archbishop John Nienstedt was stepping aside while authorities investigate an allegation that he inappropriately touched a boy's buttocks during a 2009 group photo session.

The archdiocese, which has been under fire for its past handling of alleged clergy sex abuse cases, said in the statement Nienstedt stepped aside temporarily after consulting with Pope Francis' papal nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States.

Nienstedt denied the allegations in a separate statement.

The announcements follow the archdiocese's court-ordered release earlier in December of a list of priests it said had been "credibly accused" of child abuse.

None of the priests are still in ministry and many are deceased.

Child sex abuse litigation has cost the U.S. Catholic Church slightly over $3 billion in settlements since 2002, said Charles Zech, an expert in church finances and economics professor at Villanova University near Philadelphia.

The archdiocese said in the statement it learned last week of the alleged 2009 incident after a confirmation service and notified St. Paul police.

The archdiocese spokesman could not be immediately reached for further comment. Neither the archdiocese statement nor the archbishop's statement gave specific details about the allegation or who reported it to the archdiocese.

St. Paul police said the investigation into the allegations began on Monday afternoon and was continuing. They said exactly who reported the allegation to police is private by state law.

The archdiocese said the actions in response to the allegations "demonstrate and reaffirm the archdiocese's commitment to disclosure."

But a lay Catholic group formed in response to priest sex abuse scandals, Voice of the Faithful, said Nienstedt was following church guidelines by stepping aside now but "should have resigned previously when it became clear that child protection guidelines had not been followed in the past under his tenure."

Nienstedt said in his statement, "I do not know the individual involved; he has not been made known to me. I presume he is sincere in believing what he claims, but I must say that this allegation is absolutely and entirely false."

Nienstedt in October formally apologized at a church service for serious mistakes he said were made by the archdiocese in investigations into allegations against clergy of sexual abuse.

(Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; Editing by Karen Brooks and Kenneth Barry)

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