Minnesota should expect to see a spike in clergy sex abuse lawsuits as questions about the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ handling of those cases thrusts church leaders here into the national spotlight.
While it’s too early to know how many new cases may yet come, legal analysts and victim advocates say the developments in Minnesota church to significant financial risk.
“This is just the beginning for Minnesota,” said Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that documents clergy misconduct. “The St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese is in a meltdown that perhaps only a dozen dioceses have experienced during the ongoing sexual abuse crisis.”
Nationally, the Catholic Church has spent an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion settling abuse lawsuits, according to court documents and media reports, and nine Catholic dioceses, including Milwaukee’s, have filed for bankruptcy protection since 2004.
In Minnesota, recent events have conspired to bring extraordinary attention to the issue. State law changed earlier this year to permit lawsuits from decades-old abuse cases, prompting more than 20 new lawsuits. A whistleblower in the archdiocese went public with incriminating church documents that seemed to indicate that church officials may have withheld information about new abuse cases.
Several priests under fire have resigned. A few priests, Catholic parishioners and generous donors have asked Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt to step down.
Nienstedt, in turn, has hired a consultant to examine clergy files and appointed a task force to review church policies.
Scandal blasts open
Minnesota arrived late to the clergy abuse scandal, and a decade after the problem was supposed to have been fixed by 2003 guidelines established by U.S. bishops. Retired Twin Cities Archbishop Harry Flynn was a leader of that national effort.
The national scandal erupted in the mid-1980s, when a Louisiana priest, the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, pleaded guilty to abusing more than 20 minors.
Since then, thousands of victims have stepped forward. Dozens of dioceses from Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles have been embroiled in costly legal fights that have saddened and angered both parishioners and clergy members. More than 100 dioceses and religious orders have reached clergy abuse settlements in the past 25 years, according to BishopAccountability as well as media reports and court documents. The process can drag out for years.
Minnesota Catholics aren’t the only ones reeling from new allegations of abuse. Similar claims have emerged in recent months and years in Philadelphia; Honolulu; Chicago; Newark, N.J., and Gallup, N.M.
The new allegations bear a striking resemblance to the old: that Catholic leaders ignored or rejected the claims of alleged victims, chose not to remove offending priests from the ministry and often failed to report allegations to the police.
Tom Doyle, a Virginia-based canon lawyer who has testified on behalf of alleged victims in hundreds of clergy abuse cases in civil courts, said churches typically respond to allegations in a similar manner: They appoint review boards, hire outside investigators, adopt new policies and, in some cases, remove or demote key players within the church hierarchy.
But two things make Minnesota different, Doyle said. First, the call for Nienstedt’s resignation includes some parish priests. Second, a whistleblower from inside the chancery — former archdiocesan canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger — has provided inside information about the church’s handling of recent abuse allegations and its treatment of priests who were known to have abused children.
In other dioceses, “We’ve mostly had determined prosecutors who had to dig and dig,” said William D’Antonio, an author of several books on the Catholic Church in America and a psychology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “And more victims would step forward.”
Minnesota also happens to have a law firm that specializes in cases of clergy abuse, Jeff Anderson & Associates. Headquartered about 2 miles from the chancery, Anderson said his firm has represented more than 1,000 victims of clergy sex abuse nationally over the course of 30 years. Settlements have ranged from $1 million in 1983 for a victim of former priest Tom Adamson to up to $2 million for more recent cases in Chicago.
Stakes are high
Since Minnesota’s statute of limitations for abuse victims was lifted in May, Anderson’s firm has filed 21 lawsuits representing alleged victims of abuse from the 1960s to 2012. Many involve alleged abuse that occurred decades ago, committed by priests who already were implicated in settlements to other victims.
More cases are coming, said Anderson.
The cost of settling lawsuits — both in dollars and public image — can mount quickly. A typical settlement, including attorney fees, ranges from about $250,000 to $1 million per victim, attorneys for victims said.
Settlements vary widely by location and by the number of clergy and victims involved. In 2006, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee paid $16 million in settlements for 10 victims. In 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles paid $660 million for 508 victims. In 2011, the Archdiocese of Wilmington, Del., settled for $77 million for 150 victims.
Many settlements also require the church to make public all the documents pertaining to the case, including lists of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Nine dioceses have declared bankruptcy, arguing that they had to in order to pay legal costs and settlements. The diocese of Gallup, N.M., was the latest, filing in September.
But victims’ advocates claim bankruptcy has been a strategy to limit victims’ claims, shield assets and halt public trials that would allow attorneys to take depositions from priests.
Most dioceses get some settlement money from insurance. They also draw money from other sources.
“Dioceses have long-term investment portfolios, huge donors, vast land holdings, the ability to mortgage that land, and tremendous donations in wills and bequests that offer unrestricted funds,” said Patrick Wall, a victim’s advocate at Anderson & Associates and a former priest who worked in the St. Paul chancery in the 1990s.
In Los Angeles, about half of the $600 million paid out came from insurance, Wall said. The balance came from a cemetery fund, the diocese’ central bank account and the parish checking account, he said.
The costs are high for the church hierarchy, as well.
Bishops who supervise offending priests are under growing scrutiny. Former Boston Archbishop Bernard Law resigned in 2002 after church documents suggested he had covered up sexual abuse committed by priests. Two bishops of Palm Beach, Fla., resigned because of child abuse allegations. A Missouri court last year convicted Bishop Robert Finn of a misdemeanor for failure to report a priest’s child pornography to authorities — the first time a sitting bishop had been convicted of such an offense.
D’Antonio and others say that abuse litigation could continue for years, depending on how many victims step forward and how the archdiocese responds.
Minnesota may have a long road ahead, they say.