The Catholic Diocese of New Ulm and area parishes have reached a tentative $34 million settlement with 93 people who said they were sexually abused as children by clergy and others in the diocese.
"We won," said Bob Schwiderski, a survivor of clergy abuse who filed a civil suit against the New Ulm diocese in 1992 that eventually unleashed hundreds of similar claims throughout Minnesota.
Although Schwiderski wasn't part of the recent settlement, he was elated by Wednesday's announcement. "It's sad that someone like me had to go through 27-plus years to have that institution finally admit that they harmed children," he said.
The agreement in principle now goes to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where the south-central Minnesota diocese filed for protection from its creditors in March 2017.
If the deal is approved, New Ulm will be the third diocese in Minnesota to settle its clergy abuse claims. The Diocese of Duluth and its insurers agreed last month to a $40 million settlement with 125 survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis reached a $210 million settlement in 2018 with 450 survivors.
Those agreements would settle most of the 800 credible claims of child sex abuse by priests made under the 2013 Minnesota Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for plaintiffs to file older abuse claims previously barred by statutes of limitations, according to Mike Finnegan, one of the attorneys who has represented the survivors.
Dioceses in St. Cloud, Winona and Crookston have not yet settled, he said. About 200 claimants are represented in those three cases, he said.
Many of the survivors owe a debt of gratitude to Schwiderski, who fought to open the statute of limitations, Finnegan said. "He's a hero for all the sacrifices he's made so that kids can be safer in Minnesota," he said. "Survivors have had a chance to have their voices heard."
Schwiderski was one of the first to file suit against the New Ulm diocese and St. John's Catholic Church in Hector, alleging hundreds of instances of abuse by the Rev. William J. Marks, who worked there and in the Twin Cities archdiocese from 1948 to 1979.
Schwiderski was a 7-year-old altar boy when Marks began abusing him.
"It didn't make any difference if you were the newspaper guy or you mowed the lawn across the street. It didn't matter if you were Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist. If you were a prepubescent boy, he had an interest in you," Schwiderski said. "There were 14 boys that I know of who were abused by Marks. I called them the Boys of Hector."
The effects of the abuse reverberated throughout their lives, changing them in different ways, he said. Schwiderski was 44 when he sought help for the abuse and filed suit.
Under the terms of the agreement he reached with the diocese and the church, Schwiderski can't disclose the settlement amount. "All I can say is that it was enough to buy four used tires for my 1958 Chevy," he said.
Although Schwiderski won't benefit from Wednesday's agreement, he's satisfied he helped pave the way for it.
"Society now knows it's not OK to rape kids and let your church leaders cover [it] up, " he said.
'Big day for survivors'
In a written statement Wednesday, the New Ulm diocese said it's committed to preventing sexual abuse, holding accountable those clergy who are credibly accused of abuse, and helping victims and survivors find healing.
"For more than 15 years, all priests and deacons, diocesan staff, parish and Catholic school employees, as well as volunteers having regular or unsupervised interaction with minors have been required to meet safe environment requirements," the statement said.
The diocese previously committed to disclosing the names of all clergy with credible claims of abuse made against them.
"This is a big day for the survivors," said Jeff Anderson, attorney for many of the New Ulm claimants. "They have advanced the child protection movement and made their communities safer for kids."
Once the documents are approved by the court, the 93 claimants will vote on the plan by ballot, Anderson said. The court will approve the plan after the claimant vote, and a claims reviewer would evaluate who gets how much money.
The settlement includes $8 million from the diocese and its parishes, with the balance covered by the religious body's insurers, Anderson said.