NEW ULM, MINN. – After tearful testimony by several survivors of clergy sexual abuse and a heartfelt apology from Bishop John LeVoir, the Catholic Diocese of New Ulm and area churches won approval Tuesday of a $34 million settlement with nearly 100 claimants.
Just as important to the victims: The diocese agreed to adopt 17 protocols designed to protect children from abuse and to turn over its files on credibly accused priests.
Nineteen people — abuse survivors and their supporters — stood inside a Brown County courtroom to witness the resolution of the diocese’s bankruptcy case and hear a formal apology from LeVoir from the witness stand.
“I apologize again on behalf of the church to all who have been harmed by clergy sexual abuse,” LeVoir said.
He said he hoped that the settlement and the adoption of child-protection protocols would help the victims heal and provide some peace of mind.
“I pray for this daily knowing we can never truly compensate you” for the years of suffering endured, LeVoir said, thanking them for coming forward with their stories. He said it was their courage that forced church leaders to “face what we did and what we failed to do.
“We should have taken responsibility and shared the truth on our own,” LeVoir said.
Stephen Condon, a Lakefield, Minn., resident who was abused as a boy when he lived in Silver Lake, Minn., said joining the lawsuit was the hardest decision of his life.
“It was difficult for me to go against the church I still faithfully followed,” Condon said tearfully. “Yet as I had to atone for my sins, so, too, the Church must atone for its sins.”
He said no amount of compensation can erase what the abuse survivors have endured, some of whom could not bring themselves to come forward even now.
Mary Nelson, of Marshall, Minn., said the abuse she suffered left her unable to form solid personal relationships, even with her own children.
“I didn’t understand what had happened, and why,” Nelson said.
“What I find particularly egregious in my case was that the priest was transferred to another parish and then another,” she said, adding that he was later removed from active clergy but was transferred to an orphanage.
Nelson said the child-protection protocols that were part of the bankruptcy plan should be required by parishes worldwide.
“We need to remember [so] that this can never happen again,” she said.
Leon Dietz, an Apple Valley resident who was abused as a boy in Glencoe, Minn., said the pain of the survivors was obvious. Many stifled cries and shed tears as he spoke.
“But it goes way beyond that,” Dietz said, explaining the toll that it took on his marriage and family life.
All of the known 93 victims who filed claims against the diocese have approved the terms of the settlement. A specialist in abuse apportionment will calculate the amount each will receive based on the specifics of the abuse, said attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents many of the victims.
And there could be more victims yet, Anderson said.
“We’ve required them to come forth with names [of suspected abusers] that have never been revealed publicly,” he told the abuse claimants before the hearing Tuesday.
Anderson repeatedly praised those who filed claims and demanded a public accounting of the crimes that took place.
“You have required them to be cleaner and better and safer,” he said of diocesan officials.
The New Ulm diocese, sensitive to the fact that many abuse victims find it difficult to come forward, agreed to a trust provision that would compensate unknown victims who file claims later.
“It seems to me that anyone who was sexually abused by clergy should get some form of compensation,” LeVoir told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel. “I said if somebody comes after we are finished with bankruptcy they should get some form of compensation.”
Kressel said he has heard the settlement described as a way of putting the abuse behind the diocese, a sentiment he understands.
“But this should be part of the diocese life going forward. It should never go away,” Kressel said.
Anderson told the claimants that he and his colleagues would see to that.
“We will continue to force the excavation of other files,” he said. “So our work continues.”
The New Ulm diocese is the third diocese in Minnesota to settle its clergy abuse claims. The Diocese of Duluth and its insurers agreed last year to a $40 million settlement with 125 survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis reached a $210 million settlement in 2018 with 450 survivors.
Those agreements would settle most of the 800 credible claims of child sex abuse by priests made under the 2013 Minnesota Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for plaintiffs to file older abuse claims previously barred by statutes of limitation.