Winona bishop: Abuse suits will push diocese into bankruptcy

Bishop John Quinn
Bishop John Quinn, middle, of the Diocese of Winona, at news conference in June.
Winona Daily News via AP

Updated 3:20 p.m.

Documents released Tuesday show the Catholic Diocese of Winona expects to file for bankruptcy because of clergy sex abuse lawsuits.

Winona bishop John Quinn described the plan in a March 25, 2014 letter to the Vatican. He cited the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which created a three-year window for victims of child sex abuse to file lawsuits for older claims. The window expires in mid-2016.

The Winona diocese "has received several claims of negligence upon other offenders since the statute's inception, anticipates several more, and anticipates eventually bankruptcy as a result of these lawsuits," Quinn wrote.

Explore the full investigation Clergy abuse, cover-up and crisis in the Twin Cities Catholic church

"Both attorneys and elements within the public media have exhibited unwavering resolve in their efforts to further defame alleged offenders, foster discredit in church officials, and instill common anger and mistrust toward the Universal Church," he added.

It's unclear whether the letter was sent.

Diocese spokesman Joel Hennessy said the diocese hasn't decided whether to file for bankruptcy because it's unclear how many people may sue in the remaining 21 months the law allows.

"It's not out of the realm of possibility. But it is not by any means even a possibility at this point," he said of bankruptcy. "It's just unknown at this point."

Hennessy added that he was unaware of any effort by the diocese to determine the number of possible victims. Quinn, he said, was unavailable to comment on the letter.

The bishop's letter is one of more than 2,000 pages of documents from the previously confidential files of 14 priests accused of sexually abusing children released Tuesday by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson. The diocese turned over the files to Anderson in recent months as part of a lawsuit by a man who says he was sexually abused as a child in the late 1970s by the Rev. Thomas Adamson.

The lawsuit accuses the Diocese of Winona and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis of creating a public nuisance by keeping information on abusive priests secret. The unprecedented claim has forced church officials to turn over thousands of documents and release the names of "credibly accused" priests on a previously sealed list under court-order. The diocese published the names in December 2013 but did not release the documents.

Anderson said he will scrutinize the diocese's assets closely if it files for bankruptcy but said it's too soon to say how bankruptcy would affect possible financial settlements with his clients. Nine dioceses have filed for bankruptcy because of abuse lawsuits, he said, and the outcomes differ widely.

He urged the diocese to try to avoid bankruptcy.

"It would be disturbing if that's the first choice they make, instead of trying to reach out to the survivors and say, 'Let us try to do the right thing with what we have and the insurance with have,' Anderson said. "If they go to that route without trying to work with us, it will just be another legal maneuver to avoid transparency and accountability."

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy group, criticized the possible bankruptcy move.

"This isn't about protecting church assets. It's about protecting the power and reputations of powerful church officials who desperately want to keep their complicity in child sex cases under wraps," SNAP outreach director Barbara Dorris said in a statement.

A bankruptcy filing would halt the Adamson trial, Anderson said, though victims would still be able to bring claims.

Unlike most clergy abuse lawsuits, the Adamson case has forced church officials to turn over entire files, including documents written as recently as May 2014.

The files offer the most detailed look yet at how the Diocese of Winona handled abuse allegations over decades.

The documents also show how Quinn and his deputies worked over the past year to protect the church's reputation amid a widening clergy sex abuse scandal. The diocese consulted a public relations firm to hone its message and developed "talking points" on the scandal. It also took steps to distance itself from several accused priests.

Six days before the diocese released the names of accused priests under court order, Quinn abruptly asked one of the priests on the list, the Rev. Leland Smith, to write to Pope Francis to ask to be removed from the priesthood. The diocese had removed Smith from ministry for abuse allegations 20 years earlier but did not ask the Vatican to defrock him.

The clergy file on former priest Leland Smith
Quinn's letter urging Smith to write to Pope Francis

Quinn explained that he wanted the letter written quickly because he planned to tell the public that Smith was in the process of being removed from the priesthood. "You need to be aware that on the list of 13 priests with credible accusations against them, it will be noted next to your name that laicization is 'in process,'" Quinn wrote in a letter to Smith dated Dec. 10, 2013.

Smith didn't respond until Dec. 27, and the file indicates he didn't write to the Vatican until months later. Yet when the Diocese of Winona posted its list of accused priests on Dec. 16, 2013, it said Smith's laicization was "pending in the Tribunal."

In the March 2014 letter to the Vatican — the same letter that mentions bankruptcy — Quinn urges Pope Francis to remove Smith from the priesthood. He said Smith's removal would "help to minimize, rather than induce, scandal in the Diocese of Winona, and the whole State of Minnesota. The same favor would also serve to minimize negative publicity toward Reverend Smith."

Quinn also quoted from the Child Victims Act and explained to the Vatican that it would allow victims of Smith to sue the church.

The Vatican dismissed Smith from the priesthood in April.

One of the files released, on the Rev. Leo Charles Koppala, reveals that a bishop in India urged the Diocese of Winona to help the Indian priest fight criminal charges of child sex abuse. On June 8, 2013, Blue Earth police arrested Koppala on suspicion of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly sexually assaulting a girl under the age of 13.

The girl's grandmother told police that she had invited Koppala to her house for dinner on June 7, 2013. The girl told police that Koppala followed her into the basement, where she was watching television. The priest kissed her on the mouth and groped her chest, she said.

Koppala had been on loan to the Winona diocese from his home diocese in India, and his bishop was alarmed to learn of the charges.

In a June 26, 2013 email, Bishop Moses Prakasam, of the Diocese of Nellore, India, asked Winona vicar general Richard Colletti for help. "I humbly request you to continue your efforts in rendering legal assistance to Fr. Leo Charles (Koppala) in as much as it is possible," Prakasam wrote.

"I wish and pray that he will be forgiven and made free. Kindly see if there are any chance of reducing the gravity of the case. I know and that I am confident as well that you are doing all that is within your possibility to help Fr. Leo Charles (Koppala)."

Koppala pleaded guilty in March and was sentenced to 31 days in jail, with credit for time served, and 25 years of supervised probation. Federal immigration authorities deported the priest to India on May 14.

Church officials worried about how the media would cover the guilty plea and sought advice from Laurie Archbold, of Encore Public Relations, who told a diocese spokesman in a March 18, 2014 email, "Always keep in mind what is of public record that journalists will seek to tell the story."

Archbold noted that Anderson, the attorney who represents clergy abuse victims, "is fond of pointing out how the Catholic Church likes to categorize the sexual abuse of children by clergy as a 'historic problem' — this current example shines a bright spotlight into how it is not and abuse is still happening."

She cautioned the diocese to "be very careful about using language of 'past problems, so long ago...' — as clearly it is not."

The Winona diocese has turned over files on eight other priests, but those remain under seal.

Diocesan attorneys have argued that those allegations haven't been substantiated and that any disclosure of the claims would ruin the reputations of innocent men.

Anderson said Tuesday that his firm is reviewing the sealed files and expects to ask the court to unseal them.

Read the bishop's letter: