The Diocese of Duluth and its insurers have agreed to a $40 million settlement with 125 plaintiffs who said they were sexually abused as children by Catholic clergy and others in the diocese.
As part of the agreement, the diocese has agreed to relinquish secret files on 37 priests who it had determined were credibly accused of abuse. It also must develop procedures to ensure that children will be protected from such abuse going forward.
“This lawsuit is going to be saving countless tragedy for lots of kids,” said Michael DeRoche, a former Proctor, Minn., resident who described himself as “plaintiff No. 1.”
DeRoche said he first brought his complaints of abuse to the diocese 20 years ago. “They said they would give me counseling with one of their priests,” he said.
DeRoche refused the offer and went on to become a pastor through another denomination, he said, “to help solve this problem.”
He said he’s been trying for the past six years to get the Diocese of Duluth to make amends, adding that his efforts were never about money.
“The goal for me was to ensure that no child could ever be hurt again,” DeRoche said.
The settlement is pending approval from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court; the diocese filed for protection from its creditors in December 2015. Under the agreement, the diocese must pay $10 million and the balance will be paid by its insurers.
Jeff Anderson, the attorney who represents 120 of the claimants, called the settlement “vindication and validation” for clergy sex abuse victims who he said held the diocese and Catholic bishops accountable financially and by demanding disclosure of what was known by top diocesan officials.
“We applaud the courage and patience of the survivors, who have handled this difficult process with grace and strength. They have accomplished so much for the protection of children and for themselves,” Anderson said. He said the settlement may bring some comfort to other survivors of clergy abuse, knowing that they were not alone.
Phil Kunkel, a bankruptcy attorney for the diocese, said he’s hoping the settlement will be approved by late summer to early fall, with payments going out to the abuse survivors by year’s end. The diocese would then emerge from bankruptcy and resume normal operations, he said.
“We have reached agreements with all of our insurers. At long last, we are glad we are now able to reach an agreement with the survivors,” Kunkel said.
If approved, it will be the second such settlement reached between a Catholic diocese in Minnesota and sex abuse victims. The agreement largely mirrors a $210 million settlement reached in 2018 between about 450 sex abuse survivors and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (The Crosier religious order also agreed to settle sex abuse claims for $25 million before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2017.)
Anderson represents clients in negotiations with dioceses in St. Cloud, Winona and New Ulm. He said litigation against the Crookston diocese is going forward after settlement negotiations broke down.
Assuming the bankruptcy court approves the pending settlement with the Diocese of Duluth, the plaintiffs will be sent ballots to vote on the plan. The court must then approve the agreement. After that, a claims reviewer will determine individual awards.
Anderson said the lawsuit against the Duluth diocese began in earnest after a victim of priest sex abuse sued in Ramsey County District Court and won an $8 million judgment. The diocese filed for bankruptcy protection a month later, the 15th diocese in the nation to do so.
The Duluth diocese has more than 56,000 members in 92 parishes across 10 counties in the northeast corner of Minnesota.
DeRoche, now living in Arizona, called the settlement a big deal for the victims of clergy sex abuse.
“I forgave them years ago,” he said. “But as much as you want to work on closure, you can’t until the perpetrator is brought to justice.”
While the individuals who abused him and the other children might be gone, DeRoche said, the church itself also must acknowledge its failures and make reforms.
“The Catholic Church is big about confessions and doing penance, and they never owned up to it,” he said. Until now.
“Finally,” he said, “they’re willing to settle and move forward.”