Minnesota Faced Allegations of Abuse by Priests Decade Ago

By Margaret Zack
Star Tribune
April 13, 2002

While allegations of boys being sexually abused by priests have surfaced recently across the country, Minnesota churches and courts sorted through a wave of such allegations a decade ago.
The first lawsuit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was filed in 1987, and none are believed to have been filed since 1999.

"I hope that indicates we've addressed the problem," said Andrew Eisenzimmer, an attorney for the archdiocese.

But St. Paul attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who estimated he filed between 80 and 100 suits in Minnesota against priests in the 1980s and 1990s, said although there have been some superficial changes, he believes the church continues to deny the problem's scope.

"We're not seeing the cases because of the statute of limitations, which has shut the door to redress," he said. In Minnesota, a sexual-abuse lawsuit must be started within six years of when the person knew that an injury was caused by abuse.

An effort to extend the time period for filing such suits failed this legislative session.

It's impossible to determine the total number of cases or the amount of money churches and priests have paid because there's no master list, Eisenzimmer said.

A check of records in Hennepin County District Court showed 15 cases against the archdiocese since 1989, nine involving juvenile males. In Ramsey County, there were 21 cases, 14 involving juveniles, since 1987.

Every case challenged in court in the last seven years has been lost because of the statute of limitations issue, Anderson said.

He maintains there should be more time to file suit. "Everyone's experience is different. Some victims suffer from secrecy and shame for years," he said.

Cases bring attention

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been a leader in the American Catholic Church in addressing problems of priest offenders by doing background checks and addressing victims' needs, such as counseling, Eisenzimmer said.

"Initially, many of us novices were not sure what needed to be done. We continue to learn from our own experiences as well as from other dioceses," Eisenzimmer said.

In 1987, the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was sued over the abuse of an altar boy at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in St. Paul Park by the Rev. Thomas Adamson, who had been allowed to continue parish work even after church officials received reports of abuse. The case was eventually settled.

But in another case involving Adamson, a former altar boy at the Immaculate Conception Church in Columbia Heights was awarded nearly $1 million in 1991 from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona, where Adamson previously had served.

The damages were appealed, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals said for the first time in 1992 that the church could be assessed punitive damages.

Then retired Archbishop John Roach admitted in a 1996 Hennepin County trial that terrible mistakes had been made in dealing with priests accused of abusing boys.

"We learned some bitter lessons," he said. "I made serious mistakes. In the early 1980s, no one of us would have been able to define pedophilia. . . . People were hurt." That suit was later dismissed.

In 1995, the Diocese of Duluth paid an undisclosed amount to settle a suit brought by a 39-year-old man who said the Rev. John Nicholson had repeatedly molested him as a boy.

The accuser told lawyers that the abuse had caused him a myriad of problems, including emotional disturbances, sex addiction, an eating disorder, voyeurism and exhibitionism, which led to a criminal charge.

.Staff writers Paul Gustafson and Larry Oakes contributed to this report.

Margaret Zack is at


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