The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will be required to overhaul its reporting of clergy sex abuse, how reports are investigated and how it responds to abuse victims under the terms of a historic legal settlement detailed Monday.
The deal, announced at an emotional news conference that brought church officials and sex abuse victims together for the first time on a public platform, followed a tumultuous year of scandal for the Catholic church in Minnesota.
Financial terms were not disclosed, but the centerpiece of the settlement is a 17-point “child protection plan.” It requires the archdiocese to report any child abuse claim to law enforcement and refrain from conducting its own investigation until law enforcement finishes its own. It also prevents the archdiocese from assigning accused priests to active ministry.
“We’ve forged a new way and that new way is an action plan that not only protects kids in the future but honors the pain and sorrow and the grief of survivors in the past,” victims’ attorney Jeff Anderson said at the news conference in downtown St. Paul.
Archbishop John Nienstedt was in Kenya, but issued a written statement. “Today we take a significant step closer to achieving the goals we set nearly a year ago to protect children, to help survivors heal, and to restore trust with our clergy and faithful,” wrote Nienstedt. “I am grateful to all those on both sides of the courtroom aisle who have worked so diligently to bring about this agreement.”
The settlement also includes a process for making public the names and church files of priests accused of abuse that are currently sealed, something that the archdiocese had long opposed.
The news conference came hours after Ramsey District Judge John Van de North filed an order for dismissal of the case in the wake of the settlement.
The lawsuit had forced the archdiocese to publicly reveal the names of clergy accused of child sex abuse as well as church documents revealing how it handled the cases.
‘Era of cooperation’
Joining Anderson and attorney Mike Finnegan at the microphone were Vicar General Charles Lachowitzer, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, the archdiocese’s point person on abuse Tim O’Malley and two survivors of sexual abuse.
Al Michaud, who had been abused as a boy in Edina in the 1970s, told the packed news conference that he hoped the plan would allow victims to step forward without being “shamed, judged or dismissed.”
He encouraged other victims to come forward, saying “this is a new era of cooperation.
“Today is a day that I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I’d see,” said Michaud.
The most emotional moment occurred when about 20 survivors of clergy sex abuse, now grown men, walked to the front of the room to meet Cozzens and Lachowitzer. As the church leaders looked each in the eye and shook hands or embraced, eyes often welled with tears.
“Sixteen years!” whispered one man, of how long he’d been waiting for such an act of contrition.
Case against Adamson
The lawsuit that led to this unprecedented moment of unity represented one of the most significant challenges to the archdiocese in decades. It was filed on behalf of a man, identified as “John Doe 1,” who said he was abused by the former priest Tom Adamson at a St. Paul Park church in the 1970s.
Adamson had been accused of molesting boys in the Winona Diocese before being transferred to the archdiocese.
The lawsuit accused the church of negligence in supervising and retaining Adamson, as well as creating a “public nuisance” by moving sex offenders without notifying parishioners and others in their new assignments.
“John Doe 1” did not make a public appearance Monday. However, a letter he wrote to Lachowitzer was released, in which he credited the vicar general with moving the “clergy abuse mountain.” Doe met with diocese officials recently.
“I knew one day there might be an apology to me from a member of clergy, but I believed this would be meaningless,” he wrote. “ You should know that the sincerity I felt on Wednesday afternoon from yourself, Charlie Rogers, and Tim O’Malley surprised me and gave me great hope for the future. Thank you.”
The financial impact of this case, and others pending, on the archdiocese is unclear. Lachowitzer said that the church will be examining its options, including bankruptcy, for addressing the lawsuits.
“But we need to look at what is best for resolution and restitution,” he said.
Anderson said it was the first time in more than 30 years of filing lawsuits against the Catholic Church across the country that he has entered into a child protection agreement with the church.
He expects the new spirit of cooperation to extend to other lawsuits filed over the past year against the church.
A trial had been scheduled for Nov. 3 in the case was the first filed under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which allowed older child abuse cases to be heard in civil court. It gave victims three years to file suit for sexual abuse that occurred in the past.
In recent months the archdiocese has assembled a new team to address allegations of abuse. Michael Campion, former state commissioner of public safety, will join that team next week, O’Malley said.
Jennifer Haselberger, a former canon lawyer at the archdiocese who became a whistleblower on the church’s handling of clergy abuse, called the settlement “a tremendous victory for those concerned with the safety and well-being of children and vulnerable adults.”
But Haselberger had reservations about archdiocese follow-through.
“This isn’t the first time the church has promised to follow protocol on child protection,” said Haselberger, noting the archdiocese had not followed the protocols forged by U.S. bishops in 2002.
“This settlement is a heartbreaking acknowledgment of how far the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has strayed from its mission,” she said. “It should never take action from the civil courts to compel a Catholic diocese to act in the public good.”
Bishop John Quinn of the Diocese of Winona issued a statement saying the diocese was “committed to a series of child protection protocols which will further help to ensure the safety of all of God’s children.”
Those provisions were not the same as those agreed to by the archdiocese. The Winona Diocese was referring to its current child protection policies, which are reaffirmed under the agreement, said Quinn.
All had something to lose
Charles Reid, a professor of civil and canon law at the University of St. Thomas, said he was initially surprised at the settlement because the archdiocese attorneys and Anderson did not have a positive working relationship that would spur mediation.
On the other hand, a settlement makes sense, he said.
“This would be a high-profile trial, and everybody had something to lose,” said Reid. “The archdiocese could face a potentially larger settlement, more intrusive rules governing transparency, less public trust.”
Anderson, meanwhile, could have lost the case. Or his 17-point plan could have faced allegations that it infringed upon religious expression.
“He sidesteps all the risks,” said Reid, “and gets the results he wants.”
But the deal does not include a comprehensive financial settlement, said Reid, and the archdiocese has left open the option of declaring bankruptcy.
“That’s something to remain alert to,” Reid said.