Confrontation to conciliation: Deal shifts clergy abuse legal tactics

Vicar General Rev. Charles Lachowitzer
During the news conference Vicar General Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, right, shakes hands with abuse survivors.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Updated 4:25 p.m.

Attorney Jeff Anderson, who for 30 years sued Catholic dioceses over clergy sex abuse, said Monday he was joining forces with the leaders of the Twin Cities archdiocese.

"We've forged a new way," Anderson said as he and Minnesota church leaders announced what they called a historic deal to protect children, the result of settling a landmark public nuisance lawsuit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona.

Much of the agreement, however, describes policies already in place.

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The case — and the law — at a glance

That was confirmed by the Winona diocese, which said the settlement "reaffirms" its current child protection policies, and by Archdiocese Vicar General Charles Lachowitzer, who described the agreement as "the announcement of actions already taken and the steps we will follow on a path of healing and reconciliation, restitution."

Archdiocese settlement
Attending a news conference are, left to right, abuse survivors Al Michaud and Jim Keenan, the Archdiocese's Director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment Tim O'Malley, attorney Jeff Anderson, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, Vicar General Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, attorneys Mike Finnegan and Charles Rogers.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

An MPR News investigation last year found church officials had ignored their own policies for decades.

Anderson on Monday said he would make sure the church complied with the new agreement, though he added that no plans exist for any independent monitoring.

His praise for church officials, during an emotional press conference packed with abuse survivors and their families, marked an abrupt turn in the decades-long battle to reveal how Catholic leaders protected priests who sexually assaulted children.

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

Church officials and Anderson acknowledged some would be skeptical of the new alliance.

"What we're doing is not about a publicity stunt. It's not about a slogan. It's about a deep desire to bring healing," Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said.

Anderson laid out an "action plan" that include 17 "child protection protocols."

One of the most important, he said, was that there would be no more "internal handling" of abuse claims within the archdiocese.

"Let's get the best law enforcement talent ... engaged in fully investigating so that there's full transparency and law enforcement people have access to that," Anderson said before introducing Timothy O'Malley, the former head of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension hired by the archdiocese several months ago to oversee the archdiocese review of claims.

Abuse survivors
Abuse survivors Al Michaud, left, and Jim Keenan, right, embrace after each spoke at a news conference.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

O'Malley called the child protection language a shift from "a time of litigation to an era of cooperation."

Anderson said the agreement will require ongoing public disclosure about abuse cases and that the agreement is more extensive than a 2002 deal reached with St. John's Abbey about its handling of clergy abuse claims.

The Collegeville, Minnesota, abbey agreed to keep abusive monks away from children and pay for therapy for some victims. It also said a review board would investigate abuse complaints. The board included abuse victims and people with law enforcement and mental health experience.

Anderson hailed that deal as historic and ground-breaking and also appeared with Abbot John Klassen and victims at a joint news conference, a situation similar to the one planned for this afternoon.

(Anderson now says the abbey violated the terms of the agreement, a charge the abbey has denied.)

Settlement terms are often difficult to enforce, and it's unclear how the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Winona diocese would be monitored to ensure compliance.

However, victims of abuse have become more aggressive in their efforts to hold church officials to the promises made in settlements.

In a major case in Missouri earlier this year, victims who had reached a broad settlement with the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 2008 went back to court to argue that the diocese had violated that agreement by failing to immediately report child pornography found on another priest's computer and keeping an accused priest in a parish. The settlement had required church officials to report alleged sex crimes to police and remove offenders from ministry.

Archdiocese settlement
Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis officials, including left to right, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, Director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment Tim O'Malley and Vicar General Rev. Charles Lachowitzer listen to a reporter's question.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

An arbitrator sided with the victims and ordered the diocese to pay $1.1 million in damages and attorneys' fees for breach of contract.

Anderson filed the suit tied to Monday's settlement last year in Ramsey County on behalf of a man who said he was sexually abused as a child by the Rev. Thomas Adamson in the late 1970s. Adamson, who served in the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Winona diocese, is no longer a priest.

• Related: A Doe 1 primer

The lawsuit accused the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Winona diocese of creating a public nuisance by keeping information on abusive priests secret. Anderson and his colleague Mike Finnegan argued in court that the secrecy placed children at risk of abuse from unknown offenders.

Those claims were bolstered by MPR News stories last fall that showed how top church officials continued to protect priests accused of abuse.

One priest, the Rev. Clarence Vavra, had privately admitted to sexually abusing a child on an Indian reservation in South Dakota in the 1970s. MPR News found him living half a block from a school. In another case, Harry Walsh, a former priest who was accused of abusing two children, had been hired by Wright County to teach sex ed to at-risk teenagers.

Archbishop John Nienstedt and former Archbishop Harry Flynn did not notify police or the public about the allegations against Vavra and Walsh and kept other clerics in ministry despite allegations of sexual misconduct, according to documents obtained by MPR News.

Flynn and Nienstedt also gave special monthly payments to priests who had admitted to sexually assaulting children.

"What I can assure you is that the number of people that we are supporting is declining and we continue to review all the circumstances around it," Lachowitzer said Monday.

Abuse survivors
Abuse survivors file to the front of the room during a news conference.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

"By our own church law we are required to provide some support. But I think there has been a lot of conversation ... to look at ways in which we can be more accountable as to what that support is and more transparent in helping people understand those support payments."

The lawsuit filed by Anderson led to the court-ordered disclosure in December of the names of priests flagged by church officials for "credible" allegations of child sex abuse.

The broad public nuisance claim also forced church officials to testify under oath and turn over decades of documents that showed a widespread cover-up of clergy sex abuse.

Unlike a standard negligence case, the public nuisance argument allowed Anderson to obtain more than 50,000 pages from the files of every priest accused of abuse dating back decades — over the objections of a team of church lawyers who argued that the information was not relevant and could ruin the reputations of innocent men.

The documents include handwritten notes from high-ranking church officials, letters from victims demanding that church officials remove perpetrators from ministry, psychological evaluations of several priests and other documents dating from the 1970s to mid-2014.

Over the past several months, Anderson has released several of the files and has said he plans to release more in the coming weeks. However, as of last week, Anderson could only release files on so-called "credibly accused" priests.

The lawsuit was one of dozens of cases filed after state lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act in May 2013. The law eliminated the civil statute of limitations for new cases of child sex abuse. It also gave victims three years to file lawsuits for past abuse. The window for past cases expires in mid-2016.

• Related: A Child Victims Act primer

Prior to the law's passage, victims had to file lawsuits before age 24. Since most victims don't come forward for years, the old law effectively shielded Catholic organizations from most clergy sex abuse litigation.

Jeff Anderson with survivors
Attorney Jeff Anderson, center, with abuse survivors Jim Keenan, left, and Al Michaud.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Over the past year, some parishioners have withheld donations out of fear that the money could be used for abuse lawsuits, and the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Winona diocese are considering filing for bankruptcy, according to documents and interviews with former high-ranking church officials.

However, both Catholic organizations have insurance that will likely cover a significant portion of financial settlements and attorneys' fees.

An attorney for the archdiocese said Monday that financial details of the settlement will stay confidential at the request of the victim.

Nienstedt was not at the press conference Monday. Cozzens said the archbishop wanted to be there but was on a mission trip to a rural area in Kenya. Nienstedt supported the agreement, Cozzens added. "It's his leadership that has helped bring about this new day."

Prosecutors have not filed criminal charges against church officials for failing to report a suspected child sex abuse to police or social services providers, despite a state law that requires priests, teachers, medical professionals and others to report recent allegations of abuse.

Monday's press conference also included about 25 people abused by priests and their families. At one point, they lined up to shake hands with archdiocese officials.

"The church is no longer our enemy in this," abuse survivor Al Michaud said. "They are our ally."

Documents tied to today's settlement

Archbishop John Nienstedt statement:

Doe 1 letter the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer, vicar general for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis:

Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis child protection protocols:

Diocese of Winona child protection protocols: