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Landmark clergy abuse settlement raises hopes of reform in Minnesota's Catholic church

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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — The landmark clergy abuse settlement announced Monday buoyed hopes for reform in Minnesota's Catholic church, but it leaves unanswered questions about what comes next for survivors, church finances and future transparency.

The settlement was the result of a novel lawsuit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona from nationally prominent clergy abuse attorney Jeff Anderson. Church leaders and Anderson, who has fought them in the courts for decades, said the accord was a "new day" in the relationship between victims and Minnesota's Catholic establishment. It's also a departure from the winning moves Anderson's firm plied in court, which resulted in the release of thousands of pages of private church documents and the names of accused abusive priests in Minnesota.

The firm hopes to begin settling with the other catholic districts in Minnesota, but it's unclear whether the shift in strategy will work, whether dioceses will be able to avoid bankruptcy while compensating victims, and whether the new agreement has the necessary teeth to avoid future abuse. Here are some questions and answers:

WHAT HAPPENS WITH THE REMAINING OPEN CASES?

The settlement on Monday includes 17 "child protection protocols" that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona have agreed to follow.

But the confidential financial settlement that accompanied the new policies is only one of more than a dozen cases Anderson has open with the Archdiocese. Both parties hope to settle the remaining cases out of court. There are also dozens more cases that haven't yet been filed.

Jeff Anderson and Associates has between 25 and 30 cases open in the six Catholic dioceses across the state, firm attorney Mike Finnegan said. The team also hopes to settle with the rest of the church districts in lieu of continued litigation.

Patrick Noaker, Minnesota's other prominent clergy abuse attorney, said he had about 11 cases open against the church. Noaker said he has no intention of settling.

WILL ANDERSON'S NEW APPROACH BE EFFECTIVE?

Anderson argued the church created a public nuisance by not alerting parishioners about an abusive clergyman. That allowed him to cast a wider net.

The child protection protocols outlined in the settlement require the two dioceses to disclose additional names and documents, which should begin appearing in the coming weeks, both sides said.

Finnegan said his firm simply wants more disclosure, whether that comes through litigation or settlements. Noaker remains skeptical. "The one thing that has worked in these cases is litigation," he said.

WHAT ARE THE FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS FOR DIOCESES AND VICTIMS?

Representatives from the archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona have said bankruptcy is an option because of future abuse-related payouts -- from litigation or settlements.

Anderson's case that spawned the settlement was based on abuse that allegedly occurred in 1976 and 1977. The victim was able to litigate because of a law change in 2013 that opened up a three-year window in the state statute of limitations for past sexual abuse. Finnegan said the firm anticipates hundreds of victims will come forward.

"Everything's on the table when we look ahead for the next two years," Winona Diocese Director of Mission Advancement Joel Hennessy said, adding that settlements rather than litigation could make it easier to avoid bankruptcy.

WILL THE CHURCH COMPLY WITH THE NEW POLICIES?

Skeptics are unsure if the church will change -- it has failed to adequately adhere to child abuse protocols before -- and question how the new transparency and protective policies will be enforced.

University of St. Thomas Law Professor Charles Reid said it's uncertain how the church will be held accountable under the agreement, which he said amounted to asking the dioceses to "self-police." Archdiocese Director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment Timothy O'Malley said his office has sufficient autonomy to ensure the church complies with the standards.

Charlie Rogers, an attorney representing the archdiocese, said it intends to adhere to the rules.

"If they don't follow this, we'll be back in court on this specific case and all of the other cases, on behalf of all the other survivors," Finnegan said. "It is our hope and our goal to not be back -- that's the last resort."

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