ST. PAUL, Minn. – Victims of clergy sex abuse stood next to Catholic church leaders in Minnesota on Monday to announce a settlement to a novel lawsuit that includes new measures to keep children safe.
The settlement averts a November trial of the claim that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona created a public nuisance by failing to warn parishioners about an abusive priest.
“We forged a new way and that new way is an action plan – an action plan that not only protects kids in the future, but honors the pain and sorrow and grief of the survivors of the past,” victims’ attorney Jeff Anderson said.
Among the new protocols: Church leaders won’t recommend a priest for active ministry or for a position working with minors if they have been credibly accused of sexual abuse; they won’t conduct an internal investigation or “interfere in any way” with law enforcement investigations; and each clergy member will si gn a declaration stating he has not abused a minor.
The measures differ from national policy set forth by U.S. bishops more than a decade ago by requiring the archdiocese to reveal the names of all abusers and documents related to their cases. They also spell out in greater detail the care the archdiocese is required to provide victims, among other provisions.
However, it is unclear how the protocols could be enforced, given that they involve the internal workings of the church.
“The church is no longer our enemy in this. They are our ally,” said Al Michaud, a victim of clergy abuse. “I’m going to admit that I’m skeptical … but I hope everything I’m hearing today is true.”
The case is believed to be the first such nationwide to use the public nuisance theory. That claim allowed victims’ attorneys to seek evidence of sexual abuse across the archdiocese, rather than focus on allegations against one individual.
It forced the unprecedented disclos ure of tens of thousands of church documents and the names of dozens of accused priests. The flood of information included the public release of court-ordered depositions of Archbishop John Nienstedt and other church leaders, revealing how top officials handled allegations of misconduct by priests.
Nienstedt has apologized for any mistakes but has said he won’t step down. He also said he doesn’t believe he mishandled the situation.
He missed Monday’s announcement because he is on a mission trip to Kenya. In a statement, he called the protocols “a historic moment in our efforts to assure the safety of children and vulnerable adults.”
Many of the child safety measures outlined Monday had already been mandated 14 years ago in the reforms U.S. bishops adopted at the height of the abuse scandal. The archdiocese came under fire last year in part because local church leaders had not been following some central requirements of the national policy, including keeping all guilty priests from assignments where they would have access to children.
“We are humiliated, yet we are humbled by the grace of God to be here today,” said Twin Cities Archdiocese Vicar General Charles Lachowitzer.
Anderson, a longtime critic of the way the church has handled abuse claims, said he hopes this deal works. He said his office will be involved in investigating abuse claims, and along with law enforcement will have full access to church files.
Tim O’Malley, former head of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, has been tapped to handle abuse allegations. O’Malley said that so far church leaders have been candid in answering his questions.
“How that’s going to play out in the long run, I’m not going to pretend like I know. But I will tell you in the first three weeks I’ve been very encouraged,” O’Malley said.
At one point during Monday’s news conference, about 20 victims of clergy abuse came forward and shook the hands of church le aders. Some couldn’t hold back tears.