As clergy abuse suits near trial, archdiocese weighs financial options

Attorney Patrick Noaker
Patrick Noaker, photographed, March 19, 2012.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News 2012

Three clergy sex abuse lawsuits against the Twin Cities archdiocese are headed for trial later this month amid uncertainty about whether the archdiocese will file for bankruptcy.

All three trials are scheduled to begin Jan. 26 in Ramsey County District Court. However, a bankruptcy filing would likely halt the trials, and many victims would likely instead file claims as creditors.

One of the men suing the archdiocese said he's not persuaded by claims that church leaders have put measures in place to prevent other kids from being abused. The man, who asked to be identified only by his first name John, said the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis needs to be held accountable by a jury.

"They can run but they can't hide," said John, who sued the archdiocese for allegedly failing to protect him from abuse by the Rev. Thomas Stitts. "Some point, some time, some day, some way, they're going to have to face this. Whether it's through a trial, or it's through a bankruptcy proceeding."

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He doesn't plan to accept a settlement to avoid trial, he said.

"As far as I'm concerned at this point, I'll ride this wagon to hell with them."

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

Minneapolis attorney Patrick Noaker, who represents John, said he's busy preparing to show a jury that the archdiocese knew that Stitts, who died in 1985, posed a risk to children. "We don't have any active negotiations going on," he said.

Archdiocesan officials have said publicly that it's possible the archdiocese will file for bankruptcy because of clergy sex abuse lawsuits. The archdiocese has been sued by more than a dozen alleged victims of clergy sex abuse under a state law that gives victims of child sex abuse three years to file lawsuits for older claims. The three-year window closes in May 2016.

In an emailed statement Thursday, archdiocesan civil chancellor Joseph Kueppers reiterated that "all options for fairly addressing sexual abuse claims remain on the table."

"The archdiocese is seeking a fair solution to all victim claims," he wrote. "At this point it is not fair to give priority to the claim of one party, potentially at the expense of others."

Rita Beatty, the archdiocese's communications manager who provided the statement, said Kueppers was not available for an interview today or Friday.

In response to questions about the statement, Beatty provided another statement from Kueppers. "Archdiocesan leaders do not believe it is appropriate to discuss pending litigation in the interest of fairness and out of respect for the court process," it said.

The other two cases set for trial involve alleged abuse by the Revs. Robert Thurner and Jerome Kern. Those plaintiffs are represented by St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who has been suing the archdiocese on behalf of clergy sex abuse victims for nearly 30 years.

Mike Finnegan, an attorney at Anderson's firm, said he thinks "it's very unlikely that these cases will be settled. Our plan is definitely to be ready for trial on the 26th."

Both attorneys said the trials will be stayed if the archdiocese files for bankruptcy. Instead of handling claims through civil suits, alleged victims would file claims as creditors in federal court.

"We're moving forward," Finnegan said, "And if they choose to file bankruptcy, we'll deal with that."