By Sarah Horner
For Jamie Heutmaker, Thursday was 49 years in the making.
On a hot summer’s day in 1969, Heutmaker, then 14, and one of his peers were sexually abused by a priest from the Church of St. Mark in St. Paul.
Although the Rev. Jerome Kern’s conduct was reported to Catholic Church staff by his parents, it wasn’t until now, Heutmaker said, that he felt some measure of justice.
“It feels really good to be here today,” Heutmaker, now 62, said tearfully amid a crowd of survivors of clergy sexual abuse gathered in a downtown St. Paul law office Thursday afternoon. “Never in my life did I think it would come to this, 49 years later. … I am extremely grateful.”
Led by their attorneys, including Jeff Anderson, the group gathered to announce a historic $210 million settlement in the bankruptcy battle between 450 survivors of clergy sexual abuse and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The agreement comes after three years of legal wrangling in federal bankruptcy court. The two sides sought an agreement on how much the archdiocese should pay to survivors who endured both abuse at the hands of clergy and the subsequent cover-up of the conduct by archdiocesan staff, including former Archbishop John Nienstedt.
For survivors, such as Heutmaker, the fight began long before that and involved more than legal sparring.
He thanked his parents, friends, attorneys, fellow survivors and wife for standing by him as he battled years of anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.
“Without all of you I don’t think I would be standing here today,” Heutmaker said.
Anderson cried and hugged Heutmaker and other survivors as he discussed the resolution. The agreement was negotiated by attorneys for both sides as well as members of the creditors committee, a group composed of five abuse survivors.
“It really is a story of trauma and triumph,” Anderson said of the path to the settlement. It’s the largest ever reached by a Catholic archdiocese going through bankruptcy.
“I am almost at a loss for some words because there are some feelings that are overwhelming me at this moment,” Anderson continued. “Four hundred and fifty survivors have found their voice and expressed their voice and … as a result, we have reached a negotiated settlement that not only includes accountability and financial accountability, but it actually advances the (cause) of child protection in a way that has never really been done in this country.”
Officials with the archdiocese said the resolution effectively ends all litigation pending against the local church and its parishes and allows everyone involved to enter the next phase of healing.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda apologized to survivors at a news conference held outside the archdiocese’s St. Paul offices later Thursday.
“Without (your) courage and persistence, today would not have been possible,” said Hebda, who was named to lead the archdiocese after Nienstedt’s resignation three years ago. “I recognize that the abuse stole so much from you. … Your childhood, your innocence, your safety, your ability to trust … and in many ways, your faith.”
He noted that many lives were forever changed by the abuse.
“The church let you down,” Hebda said. “I am very sorry.”
Details of how the settlement will be allocated to survivors and how much will cover attorney fees are still being determined.
FUNDS WILL BE DISBURSED
In the coming days, officials on both sides will work out the details of the agreement, which still needs to be approved by a federal bankruptcy court judge.
Tom Abood, chair of the Archdiocesan Finance Council and Reorganization Task Force, said the $210 million will be placed in a trust fund and disbursed to victims by an independent trustee, possibly beginning in the coming months.
Abood led the final stretch of negotiations for the archdiocese, which he said took 18 days to reach.
The payout is about $50 million more than the last plan presented by the archdiocese, which both the bankruptcy judge overseeing the case and survivors maintained was insufficient.
The judge also rejected the plan submitted by survivors, which called for the archdiocese alone to contribute up to $80 million. The judge directed both sides back to the negotiating table in December.
Among the sticking points in the past was how much exposure the archdiocese and its parishes’ insurance companies should have in the settlement.
About $170 million of the payout will be covered by insurance carriers under the terms of the agreement, Abood said, with the other $40 million coming from the archdiocese and its parishes.
Where that money will come from inside those organizations wasn’t immediately clear.
Abood listed an archdiocesan medical benefits plan, cash the archdiocese has on hand, as well as profits from the sales of land and property as some sources.
Both the archdiocese and its parishes rely on donations.
While it’s a big financial hit, the archdiocese can endure it, Abood said.
“We will have to work hard … to make our budget work, but we will do it and Catholics in this community can be confident that we will be moving forward responsibly with our budget and that individual parishes will do the same.”
PROTECTIONS FOR CHILDREN
Far more important than the payout to survivors are the protections now in place for children within the archdiocese as well as the exposure of the priests and staff who either abused minors or covered up such conduct, Anderson and survivors said Thursday.
They pointed to the agreement reached between the Ramsey County attorney’s office and the archdiocese in 2015 as a key component to the creation of a safer environment for youth.
That settlement came about six months after the county attorney’s office filed six gross misdemeanor charges against the archdiocese for failing to adequately protect three children sexually abused by former priest Curtis Wehmeyer.
Among the terms:
- That the archdiocese adopt new protocols for reporting and responding to allegations of clergy abuse.
- That archdiocesan officials regularly visit all of their parishes and schools.
- A requirement of background checks and child safety training for all staff and publish statements in the Catholic Spirit — the archdiocese’s newspaper — urging victims of sexual abuse to report conduct to police.
An audit conducted earlier this year found the archdiocese to so far be “substantially compliant” in those efforts.
Jim Keenan, chairman of the creditors committee and an abuse survivor, also touted the survivors’ courage to reject the archdiocese’s initial payout proposal as a critical turning point for victims.
“That hadn’t been done before. It was a first,” Keenan said. “It changed the playing field. They have to listen to victims now … and (that’s) worth more than the (settlement amount).”
Thursday’s announcement affirmed that the years of “emotional energy” he’s poured into this cause were worth it, Keenan added.
“I think it shows (that) if anyone out there wonders, ‘Do I have the legs to stand up … (for) my voice?’ You absolutely do,” Keenan said. “Speak your truth, because what happens is you may make change. I really do believe we have made the world safer in the (Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis).”
CHANGE TO STATE LAW PROMPTED LAWSUITS
The archdiocese faced numerous lawsuits after Minnesota lawmakers in 2013 created a three-year window for victims of past sexual abuse to file claims that otherwise would have been invalid due to the statute of limitations.
The onslaught compelled the archdiocese to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015, becoming the 12th U.S. diocese or archdiocese at the time to seek reorganization following numerous sex abuse claims.
The bankruptcy case proceeded slowly as attorneys argued over how much money the archdiocese should have to pay.
At least 15 dioceses or archdioceses across the country have filed for bankruptcy, including three in Minnesota, as they sought to protect themselves from growing claims of sexual abuse by clergy members. A fourth Minnesota diocese, St. Cloud, announced its intention to file in February.
According to the website BishopAccountability.org, which tracks clergy sex abuse cases, this is the largest settlement among the archdioceses and dioceses that have filed for bankruptcy protection.
The largest payout of any kind came in 2007, when the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled clergy sex abuse cases with 508 victims for $660 million. Also that year, the Diocese of San Diego agreed to a settlement of nearly $200 million to be paid to 144 people who said they were sexually abused.
This report includes information from the Associated Press.
This article (Minneapolis-St Paul archdiocese reaches sex abuse settlement) was originally published on Pioneer Press and syndicated by The Event Chronicle.