One year ago this month, Minnesota opened its courtroom doors to alleged victims of child sex abuse that occurred decades ago — a step that has rocked the Catholic Church as never before.
More than 40 lawsuits have been filed since then under the new Minnesota Child Victim’s Act, implicating at least 30 Catholic priests in sex crimes against children.
The lawsuits claim the church has mishandled, or covered up, serious abuse charges in every diocese in the state. Five of the six Minnesota dioceses have since made public the names of long-secret priest offenders, revealing more than 100 names to date.
For those who have bottled up memories of clergy abuse for decades, too nervous or fearful to report it, the law has spurred some to step forward, said Christy, a St. Paul mother who sued her abuser last year.
“It’s like a weight lifted from my shoulders,” said Christy, who did not want her last name used.
Christy said she didn’t have a clue that her priest had been accused of molesting others before. Only after hearing news reports about the church’s pattern of moving offenders from church to church did she Google his name and discover she was not alone.
“That’s when I decided to sue,’’ she said.
The new law lifts the civil statute of limitations for child abuse cases, opening a three-year window for people to sue over older cases such as Christy’s.
For nearly 20 years, Minnesotans sexually abused as children had until age 24 to sue their abusers. Child advocates, however, argued that some victims took decades to come to terms with their trauma, and that the time limits for filing claims thus needed to change.
Minnesota is the fourth state to approve a temporary window for filing older lawsuits. Similar legislation is pending in three other states, said Marci Hamilton, a New York law professor and national advocate for such changes.
California witnessed more than 1,100 lawsuits during its one-year window, Hamilton said. About 170 lawsuits were filed in Delaware and about 75 in Hawaii during their two-year windows.
Minnesota, in many ways, has followed the trajectory of its predecessors. Clergy have been charged with offenses ranging from one-time molestation to repeated rape lasting years. The incidents happened from the 1970s to just a few years ago.
‘A pace never before seen’
“But in Minnesota, we’re moving at a pace, at a depth, at a breadth never before seen in other states,” said St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, the lead attorney who has filed clergy sex abuse lawsuits in the three other states too.
Instead of filing lawsuits on behalf of one victim against one clergy member, Anderson has filed “nuisance claims” in Minnesota. Lawyers argue the church’s pattern of handling abusive priests, often moving them from parish to parish, constitutes a public nuisance. That allows them to petition the court for a broad array of information on priests and practices across a diocese.
As a result, the Twin Cities archdiocese alone is producing 40,000 documents for the court. Top church officials were required to submit to questioning, including Archbishop John Nienstedt and former Archbishop Harry Flynn.
Add a whistleblower — former archdiocese canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger — and intense media scrutiny, and the past year has seen a storm of controversy that even the law’s sponsors did not predict.
Rep. Steve Simon, DFL- St. Louis Park, a key author of the Child Victim’s Act, said he never anticipated such a chain of events.
“I didn’t know that within a year, there would be so much attention to so many claims,” Simon said.
Church: Law is mistake
The archdiocese, which opposed opening the statute of limitations, still believes time limits “are an important part of ensuring that the civil justice system remains fair to all parties,” Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens said in a written statement.
“We accept and embrace responsibility when we have made mistakes, and will continue to work with courts, victims and attorneys to pursue justice for all parties during this three-year period,” Cozzens said.
Likewise, the Rev. Karen Bockelman, retired Lutheran chair of the Minnesota Religious Council — which lobbied against the bill — still believes the law is too broad and reaches too far back. It makes defense difficult, she said.
“Documents have been lost,” said Bockelman. “Memories have faded. People have died. The insurance company no longer exists.”
Looking forward, the Vatican is likely to become part of the equation. Anderson, who sued the Vatican in 2010 in a Wisconsin case, is likely to do the same here.
“Will the Vatican be sued?” he asked. “Yes. How soon? I can’t say.”
Beyond the civil cases, where punishment does not entail jail time, some abusers will face criminal charges, said Patrick Wall, an investigator at Anderson’s law firm. County attorneys can press charges up to three years after abuse is reported to them.
More activity in court
Last week, for example, the Dakota County attorney filed charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct against Francis Hoefgen, a former St. John’s Abbey monk now living in Columbia Heights, for allegedly abusing a boy from 1989 to 1992. His arrest followed the victim’s lawsuit filed last year.
Meanwhile, more schools, nonreligious organizations and individuals are likely to be summoned to court, said Anderson.
Donors pull back support
Three lawsuits have been filed against former drama teacher Lynn Seibel at Shattuck-St. Mary’s boarding school, said Anderson, as well as three against a former Bemidji public schoolteacher who committed suicide last year.
The Catholic Church, meanwhile, has faced financial repercussions, as some donors have balked at continuing their fiscal support.
The Twin Cities archdiocese released an audit of the chancery in February showing a $3.9 million deficit. But the report stated, “The financial condition of the archdiocese is solid,” even with the liability stemming from the recent wave of lawsuits.
Meanwhile, alleged victims of clergy sex abuse continue to step forward.
Christy, for example, said she was sexually molested by the Rev. Robert Thurner, now 88. Transferred to her church after admitting to abuse in his Hopkins parish, Thurner became a family friend, invited to dinner at her parents’ home, where the abuse occurred, she said.
Christy said the incident led to years of confusion and shame and feelings of helplessness. The new law changed that. Said Christy: “Now I feel like I’m in control for once.”
Simon calls the past year “an occasion to reflect on what went wrong” and to learn from it.
“It’s a painfully teachable moment,” the representative said. “And it’s about healing for a lot of people who for a long time were ignored or dismissed or worse. They are finally getting their justice.”
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511