The historic settlement between the Twin Cities archdiocese and Minnesota’s top clergy abuse attorney was set in motion on a sunny afternoon in July. That’s when the phone rang in attorney Jeff Anderson’s office.
“I said, ‘You don’t know me, but I’ve been retained by the archdiocese to talk to you,’ ” recalled Minneapolis attorney Charles Rogers. “Jeff said that in 30 years, he’d had no meaningful experience with the archdiocese outside the courtroom. I said, ‘I’d like to try to change that.’ ”
That conversation pried loose the rigid antagonism between the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the attorney who has been representing clergy abuse victims for decades. Three months and dozens of meetings later — some including the vicar general — a global settlement was reached that few could have predicted.
“I would have given it a slim to no chance [of settlement],” said Anderson, referring to the lawsuit behind the deal. “Everything the archdiocese was doing was the same old way. Minimalization and denial. As soon as they got some new players and some new views, it started to get momentum.”
That momentum, for the church, was propelled by the daunting economic realities of continual litigation, the eroding trust of parishioners and clergy, and a new strategic priority of “victims first,’’ archdiocese officials said.
“By the necessity of the courtroom, one of the defense arguments is to discredit [the victim],’’ said Vicar General Charles Lachowitzer. “The kind of adversarial litigious relationship was not victims first.’’
The new strategy was accompanied by unprecedented contact between victims and church officials. Both Archbishop John Nienstedt and Lachowitzer met with victims and heard their painful stories.
The experience of the Milwaukee Diocese, which declared bankruptcy in 2011 and still has not reached settlements, also informed the church’s decision to mediate. “The more common ground we can find before restitution, the easier, shorter and less expensive any process will be,” Lachowitzer said.
After the initial phone call from Rogers, Anderson invited church attorneys to his office in St. Paul. During the first meeting, Rogers said he produced a Star Tribune article that featured Lachowitzer embracing a longtime advocate for clergy abuse victims. Rogers said he told Anderson that he hoped a similar bridge could be built between the attorney and the church.
The discussions were positive from the start, said both sides. After agreeing that survivors of clergy abuse should be in the forefront of discussions, mediation talks began in earnest, they said. The public didn’t have a clue.
Minnesota’s most significant clergy abuse lawsuit began operating on dual tracks. On one hand, Anderson was holding news conferences and preparing for trial of the historic case of “John Doe 1,’’ the first lawsuit filed under the Minnesota Child Victim’s Act, which allows older abuse cases to be tried in civil court.
But later that week, Anderson and co-attorney Mike Finnegan would be in the same room as the news conference, working with Rogers and others to forge a child protection plan that could be the first step to a negotiated settlement.
Lachowitzer joined the discussions several times at Anderson’s office, filled with ornate Gothic furnishings and oil paintings that would be at home in a church. The vicar general’s first reaction: “He has incredible taste.”
“Around you is art and beauty,’’ said Lachowitzer. “This was something more than an aggressive attorney.’’
Anderson and Finnegan, meanwhile, found themselves in the rare situation of sitting across the table from an archdiocesan official and not taking his court-ordered deposition.
Two miles away at the archbishop’s chancery, other changes were afoot. The August hiring of Tim O’Malley, former superintendent of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, lent credence to the negotiations, said Anderson. “We thought it was a sign of good faith.”
O’Malley began attending some of the meetings.
Archbishop Nienstedt was kept tightly in the loop, receiving detailed briefings, said Lachowitzer and Rogers. Rogers said Nienstedt actually blessed him before he set out for the first negotiations.
August went by. Then September. Neither side would share details, but both agreed there was never a eureka moment — just continual progress toward a difficult agreement. In fact, even after both sides reached the settlement about 10 days ago, there was no celebration.
“We both realize there’s a lot more work that needs to be done,” said Finnegan. “This is the start, not the end of it all.”
With the deal cemented, and dismissal of the John Doe 1 case imminent, Anderson’s office last weekend invited abuse survivors to Monday’s emotional news conference at the Landmark Hotel in St. Paul.
The abuse survivors who addressed the crowd said they never imagined that such a settlement could be reached.
Deal doesn’t satisfy all
One in the back of the room was less enthusiastic. Bob Schwiderski, perhaps Minnesota’s most vocal activist against clergy abuse, said the overall agreement, with mediation over individual cases, denies survivors of clergy abuse their day in court, when “these serial rapists” would be exposed.
“I want a jury trial and I want it public,” said Schwiderski, who said he was abused by the Rev. William Marks, now deceased. “If a global agreement reduces the opportunity for civil justice, something’s not right.”
Schwiderski also wants to make sure that the names of all abusers, not just those deemed credibly accused by the church, are made public. Anderson said releasing those names is part of the settlement.
All parties say their work has just begun. Now other lawsuits — and their financial settlements — must be hammered out. But unlike a week ago, any suits filed will head immediately to negotiations, as will the untold numbers of cases expected to be filed by Anderson’s office through 2016, when the Minnesota Child Victim’s Act expires.
“Some of this is unknown territory, out of comfort zone,’’ said Lachowitzer. “But it is victims first, then the course becomes clear.’’