At a press conference today, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona, Minnesota, with attorney Jeff Anderson, announced the settlement of a sexual-abuse lawsuit that has rocked the Minnesota church for over a year. Plaintiff John Doe alleged that by failing to disclose information about predator priests, both dioceses had created a public nuisance. This is the first time a diocese has settled such a suit. The full terms of the agreement remain unclear (financial terms have not been made public), but both dioceses have agreed to implement a set of seventeen protocols governing their response to cases of accused priests.
Several of the protocols simply require the dioceses to maintain policies they already have, such as not reassigning credibly accused priests and providing regular abuse-awareness training to staff and volunteers. (A credible allegation is one that is not "manifestly false.") But the protocols go further. Both dioceses agreed to make public the personnel files of accused priests (after a canonical proceeding has concluded). They also agreed to publish the names not only of accused priests, but also the names of priests who are taken out of ministry "under circumstances that arise, in whole or in part, out of accusations or risk of sexual abuse of a minor." Perhaps most surprisingly, the diocese agreed to obtain signed statements from every priest affirming that he has not sexually abused any minors, and that he has no knowledge of abuse committed by any other priest or employee of the diocese.
Some have expressed skepticism about the plan. First, how will the protocols be enforced? Second, to what extent does this make priests responsible for the crisis? "I want to express my gratitude to the many good priests of this archdiocese," said Jennifer Haselberger, Archbishop John Nienstedt's former top canon lawyer who went public last with her concerns about the way he and others were handling the crisis. "I fear that the burdens of this agreement will fall disproportionately on them, rather than on those whose leadership, or lack thereof, brought us to this end," according to her statement. "This settlement is a heartbreaking acknowledgment of how far the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has strayed from its mission."
Archdiocesan representatives hailed the settlement as marking a "new era" of relations between church officials and victims. "I'm sorry this happened," Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said. "It shouldn't have happened."
Cozzens, who referred to himself as a "baby bishop," having been appointed last year, just as this crisis was beginning, explained that Archbishop Nienstedt had wanted to attend the press conference, but was visiting a sister diocese in Kenya. "Today we take a significant step closer to achieving the goals we set nearly a year ago to protect children, to help survivors heal, and to restore trust with our clergy and faithful," Nienstedt said in a statement. "I am grateful to all those on both sides of the courtroom aisle who have worked so diligently to bring about this agreement." But in an e-mail to priests and deacons of the archdiocese, Nienstedt wrote that "some of our existing child-protection policies are more extensive than the attached protocols."
"We are humiliated, yet we are humbled by the grace of God to be here today," said Fr. Charles Lachowitzer, vicar general of the Twin Cities diocese. "The truth and courage of your story," he said to victims, is about "your hand reached out to us," not the church's reached out to them. "The wounded child led us to do what it good, right, and true."
The archdiocese is moving from "a time of litigation to an era of cooperation," according to Tim O'Malley, newly hired as the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis director of ministerial standards and safe environment. He promised that "we will never do anything to thwart a law-enforcement investigation--ever." O'Malley expressed confidence that the archbishop and his staff have been candid with him, and said that he's been told his staff will have "access to everything we ask for" from the archdiocese--and so far that's been the case.
After abuse victim Al Michaud spoke, O'Malley turned to him and said, "Your skepticism is healthy and welcome, and you continue to hold us accountable."
"I will," Michaud replied.