'Historic settlement' in Minnesota yields plan to guard against future sex abuse

A "historic settlement" of a lawsuit Monday in Minnesota produced more than financial compensation for the alleged survivor of clergy sex abuse. It also saw the formation of an unlikely partnership among two dioceses and one of the nation's most prominent abuse litigators.

Attorney Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese and Winona diocese announced an agreement that has already yielded near-mirror 17-point action plans for each diocese and has each committed to work with Anderson's law firm moving forward, including the disclosure of additional priests with substantiated claims of child sexual abuse.

"This is about a new day, this is about a new way, this is about a safer day," Anderson said at a press conference Monday.

Part of that new way, he said, is the action plan "that not only protects kids in the future, but honors the pain and the sorrow and the grief of the survivors in the past."

The settlement resolves the lawsuit brought by John Doe 1 against the two Catholic dioceses and former priest Thomas Adamson. Financial terms of the settlement remained confidential at the wishes of Doe 1. The case, which charged the church was a "public nuisance," was the first brought under the Minnesota Child Victim's Act and was set for trial Nov. 3.

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"My dream for the future is that child sexual abuse will one day be known only in our history books," Doe 1 said in a statement.

The action plans included in the settlement reinforce commitments to previous policies -- such as providing information about abuse prevention and safe environment training to employees; prohibiting its employees and volunteers from being alone with unrelated minors; and prohibiting clergy from traveling alone overnight with unrelated minors or having them in their vehicles -- and also outlined several new developments for each diocese:

  • Zero recommendations for clergy with pending credible or previously substantiated claims of child sexual abuse to a position in active ministry or one with access to children;
  • Upon receipt of a report of child sexual abuse, a mandated reporter will alert law enforcement, and the dioceses will not conduct an internal investigation until instructed by law officials;
  • Disclosure of any accusation of child sexual abuse received by the diocese in some capacity, as well as the status/resolution of the claim;
  • Disclosure of documents related to a substantiated accusation of child sexual abuse upon conclusion of the canonical process determining clerical status;
  • Adoption of "a whistleblower policy concerning the reporting of abuse";
  • A "good faith effort" by each diocese's director of ministerial standards to collect from all clergy a signed written statement saying they have not abused a minor at any time and that they had no knowledge of any unreported abuse of a minor within the archdiocese.

A similar agreement in the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese -- part of a $10 million settlement with 47 plaintiffs -- produced 19 nonmonetary commitments meant to prevent abuse and aid survivors. In August, a county judge upheld an arbiter's ruling that the diocese had broken the agreement's terms and awarded the plaintiffs $1.1 million.

Perhaps anticipating skepticism, Anderson emphasized the "action" aspect of the Minnesota action plans: Actions protect kids, he said, not words, policies or pledges.

He highlighted the end of internal handling of abuse allegations and a subsequent move toward providing full transparency of files to law enforcement as a major point of the plans.

"Simply, we will follow their lead from this day forward," said Timothy O'Malley, hired in August as director of ministerial standards and safe environment for the Twin Cities archdiocese. He added that Monday "marks a move from a time of litigation to a time of cooperation" between the archdiocese and Anderson's firm.

In addition to O'Malley and Anderson, others present at the press conference included numerous survivors of clergy sexual abuse and two additional representatives of the Twin Cities archdiocese: Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens and Vicar General Charles Lachowitzer.

"I would have never guessed that I would look over my left shoulder and see two priests at one of these things [Anderson press conferences]," said Jim Keenan, one of two survivors who addressed the media.

For Al Michaud, the other survivor who spoke at the press conference, the agreement represented "a new framework that gives us survivors what we have wanted all along: a way to come forward without being shamed."

At one point, Cozzens and Lachowitzer exchanged handshakes and hugs with those present in the audience who were sexually abused by priests.

Cozzens said Archbishop John Nienstedt wished to attend the press conference but has been on a mission trip in Kitui, Kenya, the Twin Cities' sister diocese, since last week. It was not expected that an agreement would come together so quickly, he said.

"It's his leadership that's helped bring about this new day," he said.

In a statement, Nienstedt said the joint agreement between the archdiocese and Anderson's offices "is a historic moment in our efforts to assure the safety of children and vulnerable adults.

"The agreement embodies a strengthened spirit of collaboration in addressing the issues related to clerical sexual abuse," he said.

Bishop John Quinn of Winona said in a statement that his diocese is "ashamed of the horrific crimes" committed by Adamson and said the settlement "reaffirms the existing protocols and demonstrates our resolve and conviction to take every possible step to ensure the safety of all God's children."

Anderson noted that before this process, his office never hosted clerics except to answer questions under oath, and said this was his first child protection agreement with a diocese in 30-plus years of litigation. He offered an open invitation to other U.S. dioceses to enter a similar arrangement with his office.

In a statement, Jennifer Haselberger -- the former chancellor for canonical affairs who alerted media and law officials to oversights in handling abuse allegations -- called the settlement "a tremendous victory for those concerned with the safety and wellbeing of children and vulnerable adults," but also expressed concern that the burdens of the agreement will disproportionately fall on "the many good priests of this Archdiocese ... rather than on those whose leadership, or lack thereof, brought us to this end."

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests applauded Doe 1 "for his courage and his persistence" but urged caution of any claims of change from church officials.

"We welcome innovative efforts to force Catholic officials to be more responsible about kids' safety and more open about clergy sex crimes and cover ups," Barbara Dorris, SNAP outreach director, said in a statement. "At the same time, however, we have repeatedly seen Catholic officials violate their pledges about child protection, even those pledges that may seem to have strong enforcement mechanisms."

In his comments to the press, Cozzens said he is praying that people won't see the action plan and other developments as a publicity stunt, but rather "see today not as an end but as a beginning."

"It's my constant prayer that you will be able to find us trustworthy," he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 24-Nov 6, 2014 print issue under the headline: Dioceses agree to action plan .

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