More than 850 child sex abuse claims, including about 500 against Minnesota Catholic clergy, have been made in the past three years under a landmark Minnesota law sunsetting this week that allowed victims of older abuse cases to have their day in court.

The Minnesota Child Victims Act, which rocked the Catholic Church to its core, set a May 25, 2016, deadline for filing older claims. Victims' lawyers are rushing to the finish line, expecting a last-minute surge in claims.

And the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is on alert, as its victim compensation plan reportedly is headed to bankruptcy court this week.

In the three years since the law's passage, the local church has witnessed an archbishop's resignation, two bankruptcies and the public naming of more than 100 priests credibly accused of child sex abuse.

But its most profound effect was on the abuse victims themselves.

"It's been a sea change," said Bob Schwiderski, a decades-long victims' advocate who was sexually abused by a priest as a boy. "We're no longer considered ignorant money-grabbers … I've gone from being spit on to being applauded."

"It's been a catharsis, not just for the victims but for the institutional church," said Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas. "The church is made healthier by honesty, transparency, and new leadership."

In 2013, Minnesota became the fourth state to create a temporary window in its civil statute of limitations to give child sex abuse victims their day in court. Until then, victims had until age 24 to file suit — even though advocates long have argued that it can take years for abuse survivors to step forward.

Step forward they did, seeking not just compensation but the prying open of church files documenting what religious leaders knew about priests who had sexual contact with kids, and how they handled the abusers.

St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, a victims' attorney for decades, launched an aggressive radio, newspaper and Internet campaign to notify victims. He currently has about 50 people — lawyers, advocates and paralegals — working on the claims.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we had 900 [claims] when this is done," Anderson said.

The calls poured in from across the state. They resulted in about 400 claims (each representing an individual victim) in the Twin Cities archdiocese, 115 in the Winona Diocese, 109 in the Duluth Diocese, 74 in the New Ulm Diocese, 72 in St. Cloud Diocese, 65 against the Order of St. Benedict at St. John's Abbey, and 50 against the Crosier religious order in Onamia, Minn.

Some priests served in more than one religious institution, so the figures are not an aggregate, according to Anderson's office. More than 250 abusers have been identified, and many are accused in multiple claims.

In addition to clergy, Minnesotans reported abuse by leaders at other well-known and respected institutions such as the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, the Boy Scouts of America and public and private schools.

Providing legal recourse

Among those reporting abuse was Jamie Heutmaker. He is one of 21 men who filed claims against the Rev. Jerome Kern, a longtime archdiocesan priest who is now retired.

Heutmaker told his parents back in 1969 that the priest had held him and grabbed his genitals while they were swimming at a Minneapolis beach, and tried again when he ran to shore. He was 14 at the time.

His parents immediately reported the assault to St. Mark's Church in St. Paul, but Kern wasn't publicly identified by the archdiocese until the child victims law passed.

Meanwhile, Kern was transferred to other churches, where he abused others, a pattern revealed in the freshly released church documents.

Before the Child Victims Act, Heutmaker had no legal recourse for an episode that he said has left deep emotional wounds.

At first, the media blitz surrounding the new law "opened a Pandora's box," said Heutmaker, reopening the anxiety and pain. Over time, the barrage of attention allowed him to better understand how the abuse shaped him.

It also gave him a chance to hear firsthand how Kern justified his actions, thanks to a video deposition in which the priest referred to some of his actions as "Italian wrestling."

"But then last fall, [Kern] showed up at my father's funeral — and signed the guest book!" said a shaken Heutmaker, at his home in Prior Lake.

"It speaks to the fact that so many of these people are in denial of what they've done. It was unmitigated gall."

The cathedral's shadow

Nowhere has the law been felt more strongly than in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, symbolized by the Cathedral of St. Paul, which towers over the city's downtown.

For many decades, the archdiocese's main office and the archbishop's residence were within steps of the massive Beaux-Arts church.

Now both the chancery and the residence have been sold, and the archdiocesan staff is moving to a less-expensive location on the East Side as the church divests its assets to help pay for victims' compensation in bankruptcy court.

Archbishop John Nienstedt, who lived at the Summit Avenue residence when the law was passed, resigned under pressure over his handling of newly exposed abuse cases and allegations about his own behavior.

Even the archdiocese's online presence has a different hue. Its home page has permanent links about where to report abuse, along with a regular stream of reports about priests removed from ministry.

In mid-May, the "latest news" included a report that Edina police had cleared a priest in Fridley of possessing child pornography, but that the archdiocese would conduct an internal investigation.

Two other reports were about new abuse claims made to the archdiocese against a Crosier priest who had served at St. Odilia parish in Shoreview, and a priest who left the ministry in 2014. No church assignments were mentioned.

Victims say the reports show that sexual misconduct isn't something limited to priests of many years ago, but that it is an ongoing problem.

Looking for accountability

The speed and scope of the abuse claims underscores the pent-up demand for justice for sexual behavior "that has created an enormous cost to the victims, to their families and to society," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the chief Senate author of the law.

"It was never the goal of legislation to create bankruptcy or disrupt institutions,"

Latz said. "If [the church] had dealt with the problem up front, [it] never would have been in this position."

It's still unknown how much the claims will cost the Catholic Church — or whether parishes, and those who insure parishes, will be required to contribute. The bulk of the claims are now part of bankruptcy filings in the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Duluth.

Archdiocesan officials declined to comment on this story.

Their next step, expected shortly, will be to file a reorganization plan with the court, including a proposal to compensate victims. The archdiocese has spent more than $5 million on attorneys to date.

Meanwhile, victims' advocates will press for accountability for those clergy known to abuse children yet continue to live without apparent consequence.

Heutmaker marveled, for example, that his abuser, accused of abusing more than 20 children, "is living in St. Paul, with what I assume is a retirement paid by the archdiocese."

Victims' advocates also ask about consequences for the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the archdiocese's point person on clergy abuse for many years who is now a pastor at the Church of Incarnation/Sagrada Corazon Church in Minneapolis.

Even so, as the Child Victims Act closes its door on the oldest abuse cases, it remains in place for children who are the targets of abuse in the years ahead.

The law permanently removes the statute of limitations on civil cases, and older victims hope that children sexually abused today don't have to suffer their same fate.

"When you get older, you think of your legacy," said Heutmaker. "Because of the Child Victims Act, I've found a newfound purpose in my life — to keep other children safe."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511