A Roman Catholic diocese in northeast Minnesota will reportedly pay a $40 million settlement to 125 individuals who were sexually abused when they were children by priests.
The survivors’ lawyer announced the settlement was reached as part of the Diocese of Duluth’s bankruptcy case on Wednesday. The settlement also requires the diocese to release the files of 37 priests that it classified as credibly accused of child sex abuse.
“The information coming out is attributable and credited to the survivors who had the patience and perseverance to fight this fight and not back down,” said Josh Peck, an attorney at the St. Paul-based Jeff Anderson & Associates, which is representing a majority of the survivors. “We thank them for coming forward and being a part of real change.”
The Diocese of Duluth filed for bankruptcy in 2015. This week, the diocese and the Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors comprised of survivors reached the agreement. In a press release, the diocese says it will file a disclosure statement and a joint plan of reorganization in the near future. These will require approval from the U.S Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota and the survivors.
“The plan anticipates contributions from the Diocese itself and virtually all of the 75 parishes of the Catholic community in the Diocese, as well as other Catholic entities,” the press release reads. “In addition to substantial contributions from these parties, the majority of the funding of the plan will come from the insurance carriers for the Diocese.”
The Diocese of Duluth added that the court proceedings is expected to take about four months. “Both the Diocese and the survivors Committee are committed to moving the process forward as quickly as possible, while still fully complying with the legal procedures necessary to obtain Bankruptcy Court approval.”
Reached by phone, Peck explained that the settlement could be traced back to the Minnesota Child Victims Act of 2013, which set fire to the state’s Catholic Church and created the ability for survivors of older abuse cases to come forward.
The landmark law opened the window for hundreds of cases. At the time, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis witnessed an archbishop's resignation, bankruptcies and the public naming of more than 100 priests credibly accused of child sex abuse, according to reports from The Associated Press and Star Tribune. Survivors continued to file lawsuit and the Diocese of Duluth moved to release the names of 18 priests as credibly accused.
“As part of the Diocese of Duluth’s ongoing efforts to foster safe environments for children and young people, Bishop Paul D. Sirba released on December 31, 2013 information about clergy members who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of young persons while serving or residing in the Duluth Diocese,” according to the diocese website.
The diocese list included priests who worked in regional parishes, including Rev. Louis Brouillard, a pastor at St. Mary in Keewatin (1984-1985) and St. Anne in Kelly Lake (1984-1985); Rev. Leonard Colston, an administrator in St. Louis County, Floodwood and missions (1981-1983); Rev. John Golobich, an assistant pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hibbing (1948-1955) and an administrator and pastor at St. Martin’s Church in Tower (1960-1965); and Rev. Mark Makowski, an assistant pastor at St. Anthony’s Church in Ely (1987-1988) and a pastor at Queen of Peace Church in Hoyt Lakes (1993).
The lists continued, Rev. Thomas Gregory Manning, a pastor at St. John the Baptist Church in Biwabik (1953-1957); Rev. John Nicholson, an assistant pastor at St. Joseph’s Church in Grand Rapids (1953-1956); Rev. Dennis Puhl, a co-pastor at Holy Spirit Church in Virginia (1974-1978); Rev. Thomas Stack, an assistant pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Virginia (1944-1950) and pastor at St. Cecilia's Church in Nashwauk (1968-1972) as well as pastor in St. Anthony’s Church in Ely (1972-1973) and Queen of Peace Church in Hoyt Lakes (1983-1987); and Rev. Stephen Toporowitz, a pastor at St. John’s Church in Virginia (1966-1969).
In 2015, a 52-year-old man dubbed John Doe 30 sued the Diocese of Duluth as the first case under the act to go to trial. He told the Ramsey County District Court that he was 15 years old in 1978 when he was molested daily by Rev. James Vincent Fitzgerald, a pastor at St. Catherine in Squaw Lake. Court proceedings revealed that Fitzgerald had been moved due to sexual abuse allegations from parishes in Illinois to Holy Cross Catholic Church at Holy Cross in Orr (1963-1964), according to the Duluth News Tribune. He would also hold posts in Bigfork, Nett Lake and Northome within the Diocese of Duluth. The jury ended up ordering the Diocese of Duluth to pay $8.1 million for damages and loss earnings. It was one of the largest verdicts in the U.S. Jeff Anderson’s law firm represented Doe.
Peck said that it was after that case when the diocese released additional names.The list includes Rev. Othmar Hohmann, an assistant pastor at St. Joseph’s Church in Grand Rapids (1966-1976); Rev. Bernard W. Bissonnette, of St. Cecilia Church in Nashwauk (1965-1966); Rev. Cornelius Kelleher, an assistant pastor at Holy Family Church in Eveleth (1960-1966) and pastor at St. Joseph’s Church in Chisholm (1975-1986); and Rev. Brian Lederer, a parochial vicar at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Hibbing (2012-2015).
In 2016, Lederer was found not guilty of six charges against him of inappropriately touching girls ages 11-13. He remains on the diocese list as part of the latest civil settlement.
Peck offered an explanation of what the Duluth Diocese has released and what it has been ordered to in light of the settlement.
“The diocese is mandated by Rome to keep a file on priests including any letters of sexual abuse and, if it involves sexual abuse allegations, they were kept secret,” Peck said. “We know the names of the abusers and where they served. But we don’t know what the diocese knew about them and when did they know them. That’s going to become public.”