The Northern Cross
What happened, exactly?
The Diocese of Duluth was sued by a man who says that he was abused by Father J. Vincent Fitzgerald, a priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, in 1978 at St. Catherine of Siena in Squaw Lake. Fitzgerald was not a priest of the Diocese of Duluth and was not assigned here when the abuse took place. The diocese has no record of ever being informed about the allegations of abuse by the victim’s family or by Fitzgerald’s religious superiors. However, the jury held the diocese partially responsible for the abuse in an $8.1 million judgment. Of that total, 60 percent of it applies to the Diocese of Duluth and 40 percent to the Oblates.
How does the diocese respond to that judgment?
As we said in a statement released to the media following the announcement, the diocese does not dispute the claim of sexual abuse involved in the case. We have great sympathy for the victim, and we support his right and every victim’s right to seek justice. At the same time, it is hard for us to understand being held responsible for a religious order priest’s actions in 1978 that the Diocese of Duluth knew nothing about and could not have prevented. With this in mind, we will be considering all available options in response, including an appeal of the decision.
An appeal is what our attorneys and the insurance company involved here have recommended, but there has been no final decision about it.
That seems like a lot of money. Is that something the diocese can pay?
It is a lot of money. Many people think of the church as a wealthy institution, perhaps because of some beautiful buildings and artwork built by generations past and dedicated to the glory of God, but anyone who has read the financial statements published in The Northern Cross can see that the diocese’s portion of this judgment exceeds the entire annual operating budget of the diocese, which last fiscal year was $3,294,627. There is insurance coverage in this case, and the diocese has some funds in reserve, but with this and other lawsuits pending, it’s still a daunting figure.
Does that mean bankruptcy?
That decision has yet to be made. In addition to the difficult financial calculus, there is also a question of justice. With other victims of clergy sexual abuse pursuing their cases in the courts and a finite pool of resources from which they might be compensated for their suffering, bankruptcy might ensure a more equitable distribution. It is difficult to predict exactly how it would play out, but if bankruptcy is something the diocese has to pursue, more information will be provided at that time.
What would this mean for my parish or school?
Parishes, Catholic schools and other local Catholic entities such as endowments are incorporated separately from the diocese and are likely not affected.
Why does this keep happening? I thought this was all fixed years ago.
It will never be possible to say this problem is entirely “fixed” so long as there is sin and evil in the world, but please keep in mind the context here, which is often missing from news coverage. The overwhelming majority of the cases you are hearing about in the news are cases from decades ago, brought up now because of state legislation that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on these crimes for civil suits. That doesn’t excuse past failings or make the suffering of victims less, but it’s important to remember we are talking mostly about historical events. Since 1992 — more than two decades ago — this diocese has had safe environment policies in place and followed them. No set of policies can entirely prevent child sexual abuse, but doing our best to prevent these crimes, to assist victims and to ensure justice is done have been high priorities of the diocese for a long time now.
Some people say nothing has changed and that the church is still full of abuse and cover-ups.
The facts are clear. Every clergy member and employee — and every volunteer working with children — at the diocese or a diocesan parish or school is required to periodically undergo certification, which includes a background check and training to prevent child abuse. Under church policy they are all “mandatory reporters” obligated to come forward with any known instance or reasonable suspicion of abuse. They are all themselves subject to a Code of Pastoral Conduct to protect children and vulnerable adults. All children in our schools and parishes also get their own safety training. The diocese cooperates with law enforcement whenever there is an accusation of sexual abuse, as well as notifying parishes so that any other victims can be invited to safely come forward to law enforcement and to caring people in the church trained to listen to them, believe them and assist them. The diocese has voluntarily released the names of clergy who have been accused of sexual misconduct with a minor, again to assist victims in coming forward.
How does this lawsuit affect giving opportunities with the diocese, such as the United Catholic Appeal?
At this point, it is not entirely clear. What we do know is that the diocese still has necessary, day-to-day operating expenses funded significantly by the United Catholic Appeal that support important ministries, such as seminarian education, religious education, youth ministry and Catholic schools. Those ministries continue, and our bishop and the diocese have a record of being responsible stewards of our financial resources.
Is there anything else I can do?
Prayer is a good place to start: Pray for victims of sexual abuse, pray for priests, pray for justice to prevail in these matters and pray for the mission of the church to proclaim the Gospel, especially in this Holy Year of Mercy.