Within days, the first legal notices will appear in newspapers across the state announcing, “You May Have a Claim Against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.”
Letters already are in the mail to Catholics who have reported sexual abuse to the archdiocese over the years, telling them of a critical deadline for making a claim. Hundreds of notices to treatment centers, psychological therapists, parishes and schools are in the works.
The urgent message: Anyone who has been sexually abused by a priest in the archdiocese now or in decades past needs to step forward by Aug. 3 if they intend to seek compensation. The news is being blasted out by the church, by victims’ attorneys and survivors themselves.
“This will be unprecedented,” said victims’ attorney Jeff Anderson, whose law firm is spreading the word through its own campaign in social and traditional media.
A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge ruled last week that individuals abused by clergy in the archdiocese have until Aug. 3 to file a claim. The date is nine months earlier than the May 2016 deadline for all other Minnesota abuse survivors, who are suing the church in record numbers through a state law that gave them a three-year window to file older claims.
The archdiocese had argued that a shorter deadline would quicken its financial reorganization plan. It pledged to begin a serious search for all victims.
“We are making every effort to comply with the [judge’s] order and provide as much notice as reasonably possible,” said archdiocese attorney Richard Anderson.
However, victims’ advocates charge the shortened deadline is one more attempt by the archdiocese to shield its obligations to abuse victims.
“The archbishop [John Nienstedt] has pledged to put survivors first, but this has put the needs of archdiocese first,” said Robert Kuglar, the attorney for the creditors committee in the bankruptcy.
In the past week, Kuglar said he has given the names and addresses of licensed chemical dependency treatment centers to the archdiocese so the church can contact them. Another list of more than 1,000 licensed therapists will be sent to the archdiocese by Friday, he said. Both are places where emotionally damaged abuse victims may be found.
But the committee representing abuse victims is taking steps on another front, namely to keep the window for filing claims open until next May.
Media blitz begins
The bankruptcy court order requires the archdiocese to publish notices of the deadline in 23 newspapers, four TV stations, two radio stations and each diocese in Minnesota. The first notice could start as soon as next week, said archdiocese attorney Richard Anderson. Three more notices will be published in the following weeks.
Watch for legal notices in a variety of publications, including USA Today, the Duluth News Tribune, the Bemidji Pioneer and La Prensa de Minnesota.
Notices also are headed to the sheriff’s departments in all 12 counties of the archdiocese, every hospital in the region, every Catholic high school and all 187 parishes. The parishes and schools will be asked to display the notice “in a prominent location,” the court order says.
The archdiocese will directly notify individuals who have reported abuse to the archdiocese over the years, said Richard Anderson. That figure is about 150 to 200 people.
Meanwhile Jeff Anderson’s law firm has a team of up to 20 people poring over files for contact information on the many people who have contacted him over the past three decades.
“I’ve been doing this 31 years, taking calls from survivors, representing survivors,” said Anderson. “We’re trying to get to people who have had the courthouse closed to them for 20 years.”
Anderson’s office is also preparing its own media blitz. Last Sunday, he took out a half-page advertisement in the Star Tribune.
“I’ve never advertised before,” said Anderson. “We’ll start locally. It will go statewide. And we may need to go national.”
The outreach is critical because it’s no simple task to locate abuse victims, said Kuglar. Many have moved. Some have married and changed their names. Some may not be watch or read the news, he said, or be Internet users.
And many may still be holding onto their secret, he said.
The good news for most is that if they file for an abuse claim, their information will remain confidential. Judge Robert Kressel ruled that not only will the claims not be part of a public record, but a limited number of court staff will view them.
That confidentiality is critical, said Frank Meuers director of the state chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
While the court order dictated the archdiocese’s requirements for notifying victims, other steps are likely in the time ahead.
Said Kuglar: “This is an ongoing process.”