Attorney Jeff Anderson asked for any survivors of child sexual abuse, as well as their family members and supporters, to stand as he addressed a judge inside a Duluth courtroom Monday.
Behind him, dozens rose to their feet in the overfill seating area. Spanning many generations, they stood united in their shared experience, hoping to receive some measure of justice after enduring decades of trauma.
"So many survivors for so long felt they would never be believed," Anderson said. "Well, you are and you were and you now have been."
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel approved a landmark settlement between the Diocese of Duluth and more than 100 victims of child sexual abuse. The reorganization plan will provide more than $39 million to survivors and allow the diocese to emerge from bankruptcy protection after nearly four years.
"I hope the diocese does not move forward and put this behind them," Kressel said at the conclusion of an emotional, 40-minute hearing. "This is not the end. The victims are not putting this behind them and moving on. They will live with this for the rest of their lives, and the church should, too."
The settlement has been decades in the making, spurred by a 2013 state law that opened a window for victims to file suit and propelled the diocese into bankruptcy.
Bishop Paul Sirba, who testified at Monday's hearing, repeatedly apologized for the church's role and vowed to do better in the future.
"Our first thoughts today are with the innocent people who suffered abuse," Sirba said afterward. "We know that no amount of money can heal their suffering. We believe only Jesus brings that kind of healing. But for us the compensation can be a sign of our repentance and accountability and solidarity.
"Those who have suffered abuse in the church are, in our eyes, our brothers and sisters who have been harmed. They deserve and always have deserved our particular love and support. Their courage and insistence in speaking out, while hopefully helping them on their journey of healing, has also helped us to be accountable and to do the right things in ways we had not managed to do on our own. I thank them for this."
Settlement forces 'reckoning'
The diocese voluntarily filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2015 in the wake of a $4.9 million jury verdict. That award came in the first lawsuit in the state to go to trial under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for victims of decades-old abuse cases to file suit. An onslaught of claims followed in the bankruptcy process.
The case, however, was mired in litigation for years as the diocese sued to force coverage from five insurance companies — a matter complicated by the fact that the abuse claims date as far back as the 1940s. All five insurers eventually settled, with contributions ranging from $250,000 to $15 million.
The reorganization plan, announced in May, provides for more than $40 million in spending — mostly for direct distribution to victims — as well as a number of other provisions aimed at transparency and child protection.
Anderson, surrounded by survivors and their supporters at a news conference after the hearing, said the approval of the plan was an important step for the diocese and for survivors, including those who have been lost as a result of their trauma.
"Each survivor has stood for years and decades for their truth," said Anderson, whose St. Paul firm represents many of the victims. "Today, they stand with us together, having caused a reckoning and having had their courage, their truth, the support of their family and friends to bear upon the Diocese of Duluth after this long and arduous legal struggle."
Ford Elsaesser, an Idaho attorney who has represented Duluth and numerous other dioceses in bankruptcy proceedings, said the settlement provides the survivors an opportunity for "closure, relief and a sense of accountability," but acknowledged those emotions are "tempered by a feeling of solemnity and sadness that are indelibly part of this process."
"This is the best process to undertake a resolution and make an attempt, as insufficient as it may be, to right the wrongs that were committed against these survivors and their families," Elsaesser told the court.
Anderson noted the agreement includes some important non-monetary provisions. Those include additional protocols for child safety within the diocese and the forthcoming release of files on each of the three dozen priests deemed "credibly accused."
"Each survivor has done something to make this community safer, to make this community cleaner, to make this diocese reckon and to know and take some comfort in the fact that kids will be protected because the survivors made a choice to share their secrets, sometimes held for decades," Anderson said.
He made a point of receiving that commitment from the bishop at Monday's hearing.
"Can you, and do you, pledge to the survivors rigorous attention and enforcement of the non-economic conditions designed to protect kids in the future and expose the past patterns and practices used by the diocese?" Anderson asked.
"Yes, I do," Sirba responded.
Church persists through financial burden
A third-party adjudicator will soon begin the process of evaluating each of the 125 abuse claims and assigning the $39.2 million that has been allocated to a distribution trust.
While insurers are paying the bulk of the sum — more than $30 million — the diocese itself is contributing $8.5 million to the distribution fund, along with paying more than $2 million in various legal and court fees. Doing so will strain the resources of the diocese and put it in long-term debt, Sirba acknowledged.
The settlement includes nearly $2 million from the diocese's savings and operating budget. All 75 parishes have made voluntary contributions, totaling $2.66 million. Eight Catholic entities, including schools and endowment funds, are voluntarily paying nearly $2 million. Individual priests also have chipped in a combined $70,000.
Meanwhile, Sirba has moved into a parish rectory as the diocese announced a $500,000 sale of the bishop's residence — one of the few pieces of land the diocese itself owns.
The remaining sum will be covered by a $4.17 million loan from the Seminarian Endowment Fund — a debt that will be repaid at 4% interest over the next 20 years.
"As Catholics, we believe that we share a communion, a unity, in Jesus, and within that, when one person among us suffers we all suffer, and when one sins, we are all wounded by it," Sirba said. "My invitation for the Catholic faithful is to think of these events in that light. Even if we have not been abused ourselves, we have a share in the suffering of those who did."
Despite the financial hardships, Sirba said the work of the church will continue.
"The mission for the church here in Duluth remains what it has always been, and it’s a hopeful and essential one: holiness and faithfulness to Jesus and bringing the joy of His friendship to our part of the world, making Him known and loved in Northeastern Minnesota, and being ministers of His mercy, which is His love where people are hurting," the bishop said.
Above all else, Anderson said the settlement provided vindication for all the survivors who endured years of struggle.
"It has been long and hard," he said, "and there is no end to that struggle today."