DULUTH – A judge's approval of a nearly $40 million settlement with the Diocese of Duluth was welcome news to the tearful survivors of clergy sexual abuse who crammed into a federal courtroom here Monday.
It meant their suffering was recognized. It meant the church was being held accountable.
"It means that perhaps they're going to start keeping an eye on these people," said Eugene Saumer, 80, who described struggling throughout his life with the memories of being abused while he temporarily lived in a Catholic orphanage at age 9.
In addition to payouts to about 125 people who filed claims against the Duluth Diocese, the church agreed to open its files on more than three dozen priests who had been credibly accused of abuse and develop procedures to ensure children will be protected from such abuse in the future.
On behalf of the diocese, Bishop Paul Sirba said on the witness stand that he wanted to extend "my apology and my sincere sorrow for all that the victims of clergy sexual abuse have suffered all these years." He assured them that the diocese would use every available means to make its environment safe, and pledged to hold accountable those who committed the abuse.
The settlement will allow the diocese to emerge from bankruptcy after it filed for protection from its creditors in December 2015. Payments to individuals will be determined by a third party and are expected to be completed early next year.
Jeff Anderson, the attorney representing the majority of claimants, asked survivors, their families and their supporters in the courtroom to stand with him as he recognized their efforts before the judge.
Their strength and courage to come forward "does make this community safer and better," he said, and each "deserves all of our gratitude and respect."
As he formally signed off on the settlement, Judge Robert Kressel urged the diocese to remember, review, share and teach what was learned in the process, so that history does not repeat itself.
"I hope that the diocese does not move on and put this behind them," Kressel said. "This is not closure … the church should never forget."
The diocese will fund the settlement using roughly $1.2 million from cash reserves, an estimated $500,000 from the future sale of the bishop's house, $4.2 million from a low-interest loan from a seminarian endowment fund, $2.6 million from voluntary contributions from parishes, $1.9 million from voluntary non-parish contributions and $71,000 from priests. Insurance will cover more than $30 million.
The Duluth Diocese, which has more than 45,000 Catholics in 72 parishes in 10 northeastern Minnesota counties, put out a list of credibly accused priests in late 2013.
As part of the non-monetary settlement agreement, the diocese said in a statement, church officials will release documents related to clergy sexual abuse, adopt a "whistleblower policy" and make a "good faith effort" to get signed statements from clergy that they have not sexually abused any minor and have no knowledge of other abuse not reported to law enforcement and the diocese.
In a news conference after the hearing, diocese leaders said other procedures for protecting children include background checks for all volunteers and employees working with children.
Sirba said the church knows no amount of money can heal survivors' suffering, but that compensation is a sign of "our repentance and accountability and solidarity."
The survivors' courage 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 that we have not managed to do on our own," he said. "I thank them for this."
Saumer said the abuse he endured while he and his brothers lived at St. James Orphanage in Duluth shortly after their parents divorced has stayed with him throughout his life.
"I had trouble sleeping sometimes," he said. "I drowned it in a bottle of whiskey lots of times."
The priests took boys on an outing to a cabin north of Duluth, Saumer remembered, and the Rev. Gregory Manning abused him there. Saumer said he once talked about girls during confession and that Manning referenced it during the abuse.
"They used what they heard in confession," Saumer said.
His bouts of anger over it later in life almost ruined his marriage, he and his wife said.
'A lifelong impact'
Incidents of abuse have "a lifelong impact on everybody," Bonnie Saumer said. "Not just the victims, but the victims' families."
The couple said they weren't going to come forward to take part in the lawsuit at first, but hearing that more than 100 others were claiming abuse in the Duluth Diocese gave them resolve to join and press for change.
"You can't put a dollar figure on what it does to a family," Bonnie Saumer said. "Even with all these promises, will they change?"
In the federal courthouse hallway, Anderson gathered with survivors after the hearing and told them they could rest assured that they had made a difference. Future abuses will not happen, he told them, "because you stood up for your truth."
"Take comfort and take credit for what you individually have achieved because it took courage," Anderson said. "You stood up and you saved some other kids ... you are heroes. Own it."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102