Marie Mielke held her arms out as far as she could reach, her hands open and her fingers spread.
That’s how expansive and open to the world she felt as she stood before the bright media cameras in her lawyer’s office Thursday among fellow survivors of childhood sex abuse by Minnesota priests.
“Father Michael Keating didn’t take anything from me,” she said staunchly. “I’m standing here now fighting for my babies.”
Mielke was the third victim to speak after attorney Jeff Anderson announced the $210 million settlement for nearly 450 Minnesota victims. Several victims stood alongside lawyers and media in the darkly paneled conference room.
The victims, now adults, were preyed upon, sexually assaulted and raped by priests as children at church and school.
Those who ended up in Anderson’s conference room described pain-filled decades of post-traumatic stress as the archdiocese both covered up for predator priests and denied their bad behavior.
For many, this was closure, as they continue to heal their scars of emotional trauma.
“I’m in a good place now,” said David Bidney, his voice shaking. “But kids shouldn’t have to go through that.”
He was 10 when the abuse began on a school playground. Although the monetary settlement is large, Bidney said he’s more overwhelmed by more than 100,000 pages of documents and files that exposed pedophile priests the archdiocese hid.
“Today, that veil [they] hid behind is torn wide open,” Bidney said. “The world should tremble to know what went on.”
It was abuse that he kept secret and buried for decades. Then, on Sept. 12, 2007, his wife called to say she was taking their children to a playground. He hung up and began to shake, sweat profusely and cry.
“It all came back,” he said. Months later, he played Russian roulette in the bathroom, hoping to kill himself. “The gun didn’t go off,” and he eventually found help and Jeff Anderson.
Wednesday’s announcement was a “long day in coming” and a burden relieved, said Jamie Heutmaker, who says he has gone from being a victim to a survivor and now an advocate for others.
“I wanted to see people go to jail, but that doesn’t really happen in a bankruptcy case,” he said.
Instead, he takes solace in abusers being exposed and the changes that are being made.
Jim Keenan, chairman of the abuse survivors committee during bankruptcy court proceedings, said, “I can’t think what life will be like now without the emotional energy I don’t have to put toward this anymore.”
Survivor Mike Barlow said the changes will help survivors and prevent future abuse.
“The archdiocese is now the safest in the country,” he said. “After all the years of coming up with excuses, they’ve finally admitted their wrongs. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”
Like many of the other survivors, Barlow knew taking on the archdiocese would be a hard and likely long fight.
But he and the others stuck together, putting their faith and trust in Anderson.
Tommy Treloar, 51, who once contemplated suicide, shook Anderson’s hand to tell him he was more than 11 months sober.
Looking healthy and relaxed, Treloar was excited about a paid internship he had just received at his treatment center.
He’s had years of therapy, “peeling back the layers,” he said. “It’s been the hardest thing.”
Treloar said a priest at Immaculate Heart of Mary called him into the office one day when he was 11 to talk about his grandmother’s recent death.
The abuse began in that room, Treloar said, as his friends played street hockey outside the school, and it continued throughout the school year.
When the lawsuit first proceeded, Treloar said he wanted money — and he will get some — but now he’s grateful for the accountability and his sobriety.
“I still have hope for a life,” he said. “It would be nice to get married one day.”
Treloar and the others now talk about hope, and gratitude for the work done to hold the archdiocese accountable.
“There are good priests. But the cover-ups kept good people from doing good work,” said Mielke, with her husband and 10-month-old daughter by her side.
“You can’t put a price tag on what’s been accomplished.”