Bob Rich was in his 20s when he won an $850,000 settlement from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis — compensation for years of sexual abuse at the hands of the Rev. Robert Michael Thurner.
Rich and his family were hopeful the lawsuit, settled in 1992, would bring closure. But within four years, the money was gone. Some Rich gave away. Some went to a California beach house and a Porsche. Some he used to fuel a cocaine habit — an effort, he said, to ease the pain.
More than 20 years later, hundreds of survivors of clergy sexual abuse have filed claims against the archdiocese. Many were urged forward by the 2013 Minnesota Child Victims Act, which extended the statute of limitations for civil claims in child sex abuse cases.
Unlike Rich, these survivors won’t file suit. Instead, the assets of the archdiocese, which filed for Chap. 11 bankruptcy in January, will be divvied up among them. And settlements are unlikely to reach the amount that Rich’s did.
In 2004, 171 victims in the Portland archdiocese split $90 million. In August, negotiations in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee led to a $21 million settlement for 330 victims out of more than 500 who filed claims. In the Twin Cities, the archdiocese’s assets are estimated between $10 million and $50 million and more than 400 people have filed claims.
As 49-year-old Rich can attest, though, the pain doesn’t end with a settlement of any amount.
“I think that often a fantasy persists that they’re going to win, and somehow that childhood that can never be restored will be restored,” said Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, a trauma specialist who works with victims of clergy sexual abuse. “And then they get the check, and nothing’s changed.”
Years of abuse
Rich didn’t tell anyone about the abuse for a decade. When he did, he told only his mother.
“He didn’t want me to tell anybody,” said his mother, Laurie Flanders. “He just wanted me to know about it.”
The abuse started in 1980, when Rich was in eighth grade. After spending time together over several weeks, Thurner took Rich out for dinner and a movie, then back to the rectory, where he molested Rich before driving him home.
Within a week, the priest called Rich’s house. He picked him up, took him out and molested him again. It became routine, Rich said.
“Frankly, I was happy that Bob was spending some time with a priest, because I thought it would be a helpful thing,” said Bob’s father, Rob Rich. “Obviously, it wasn’t.”
The abuse continued until Rich left for college. In November 1982, Thurner told Archbishop John Roach that he’d had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy — Rich — and submitted a letter of resignation shortly afterward.
But by the summer of 1983, Thurner had been reassigned to a church in West St. Paul. He is accused of abusing a girl there who was about 7 years old.
Thurner retired in December 1991, days before Rich’s suit was filed. He was permanently removed from ministry in 2002.
St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who represented Rich, is representing most of the bankruptcy claimants. Among his clients are four people who claim Thurner sexually abused them, including one who was on the verge of going to trial when the archdiocese declared bankruptcy.
Rich wanted his case to go to trial and was hoping for a multimillion-dollar settlement. But then the archdiocese threw a curve ball: a threat to countersue Rich’s father for failing to protect him from Thurner.
Wanting to shield his parents — Flanders had already been deposed — Rich chose to settle.
Bankruptcy claimants here likely won’t experience the level of scrutiny that Rich and his family did. Some may have to give depositions, Anderson said, but others may simply have to provide information to their attorneys.
Survivors typically experience a sense of strength when they bring suit, Anderson said, because they’ve come forward and taken action. But what happens after a settlement is different for everyone. Some of Anderson’s clients have gone on to build a better life, he said. Others have fallen into drug and alcohol addiction. One person died by suicide.
“It doesn’t make the pain go away,” Anderson said. “It makes some of the symptoms go away.”
For Rich, those symptoms started to emerge shortly after the abuse began. He became reckless and angry, and it affected the whole family.
Decades later, Rich still struggles with anxiety and flashbacks. He is angry with the church, and with his father for returning to it. In working on a documentary about his experience — which he’s asked the archdiocese to fund — he’s researched clergy sexual abuse obsessively, calculating the number of children abused by a priest every hour since 1950.
“Just because you get the cash doesn’t mean the pain and the anguish goes away,” Rich said.
Frawley-O’Dea, the trauma specialist, said she struggles with whether the legal system is a good avenue for survivors.
“From a purely clinical perspective, I don’t know how effective being a litigant often is in healing,” she said. “But from the social justice perspective, it is the only thing that has led to any degree of change.”