After nearly four decades, Bob Rich can still draw a map of the room where it happened.
He was 12 years old when a priest who was a visiting speaker at his school took him to lunch, sneaked him into an R-rated movie and then drove him back to the rectory and sexually abused him. The abuse continued for years.
Now, as Rich and other survivors of clergy sexual abuse across the nation watch events unfold in the Twin Cities, their reactions to Friday’s bankruptcy filing range from hope to frustration.
“I believe very strongly that we are positioned in a way today to make sure the survivors are treated fairly and equitably,” Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul attorney handling most of the Twin Cities clergy sexual abuse cases, said at a news conference Friday.
But some survivors who already have gone through the legal process, either in Minnesota or elsewhere, say they’re apprehensive about what will happen here.
“What that does is it puts a stop to everything,” said Joelle Casteix, Western regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. Casteix says that diocese officials “always pitch it as a very humane way to treat everyone fairly, but their No. 1 goal is to keep their secrets hidden.”
In declaring bankruptcy, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis joins about a dozen others nationwide that have done the same.
Often, the filings have come on the eve of a trial. In Portland, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy before jury selection for a negligence trial. In San Diego, the filing came hours before the start of the first of more than 40 sexual abuse lawsuits.
Here, the bankruptcy filing freezes more than 20 lawsuits against the church, as well as three abuse trials scheduled to begin Jan. 26. And with more than a year before the window closes on the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which lifted the civil statute of limitations for child abuse cases, more cases could emerge.
“I will say, quite candidly, in past bankruptcies where we were involved … they did use reorganization to avoid trial and having to give testimony,” Anderson said Friday. “This time, it’s different.”
Unlike in other archdioceses around the country, he said, the Catholic leadership here has signaled a desire to make things right, and has cooperated with victims’ attorneys over the past several months.
But not everyone is so hopeful.
Around the time that Rich was first abused, his parish priest molested Al Michaud in a swimming pool at the St. Paul Seminary. Now 53, Michaud said he’s not convinced that the archdiocese will do right by survivors of clergy sex abuse.
“Fine, the church declared bankruptcy,” he said. “But they really could step forward and do something about the priests that are still sitting out in society right now that they know are credible pedophiles.”
For Rich, the abuse continued until the summer before he left for college, all within a few miles of the Minnetonka neighborhood where he grew up. On Sunday, Rich returned for the first time to the rectory where his abuse began. Someone else lives there now. A different car is parked in the driveway.
He stood on the street and pointed to the window of the room he remembers, tears streaming down his face.
“I didn’t think it would hurt this much,” he said. “But it does.”
After years spent away from Minnesota, his recent return has brought with it the flashbacks that Rich has tried for years to escape. He calls them “land mines,” and they’re everywhere: the wooded road where it happened for the last time, inside a parked car. News stories detailing the latest abuse revelations. The sound of church bells.
“You cannot escape it,” he said. “It’s like breathing air.”
Spared the hardship of trial
At Friday’s news conference, Anderson said that the bankruptcy filing will help survivors maintain their privacy, avoiding the intrusions that can occur during litigation.
Casteix, who was abused by a lay teacher at her Catholic high school and was part of a global settlement in California in 2005, didn’t go through a trial. The civil process, though she considers it one of the best things she’s ever done, was still difficult.
“It is hard,” she said. “You have to go places that you haven’t been in a long time.”
Marie Mielke was abused by a priest starting at age 12 and has a lawsuit pending against the archdiocese.
She expected the bankruptcy, she said, and isn’t worried by it. Still, she has her ups and downs.
“I think throughout the course of the case, some days you feel really strong and, ‘Yeah, I feel really courageous and really victorious,’ ” she said. “Other days, I just feel exhausted and sad.”
When she realized years ago that she’d been abused by a priest, she considered leaving the church.
“And then it dawned on me, you know, I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “If anyone has to leave, it’s him.”
Rich is no longer a practicing Catholic, but he still considers himself a spiritual person. He’s making a documentary about clergy sexual abuse, as part of a larger effort to support survivors and their families.
And if one day the church experiences a sea change, he said, he will return.
“I want my church back,” he said.