First clergy abuse settlement with archdiocese reached under new law
By Jean Hopfensperger
August 20, 2014
|“When I was 17 … I was overwhelmed by fear. It was unthinkable to have a priest — who is the hand of God — have his hand on a child’s body.’’ Jon Jaker, on Wednesday.|
More than 40 years after being sexually abused by a Catholic priest in St. Paul, Jon Jaker claimed a groundbreaking victory for himself and other abuse victims Wednesday.
Accompanied by his 84-year-old mother, Jaker, 54, announced he had reached a financial settlement with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the first payout under a new law that temporarily extends the time in which such clergy abuse lawsuits can be brought to court.
“This has been a long battle,” said Jaker, who now lives in California, at a news conference in the offices of Minneapolis attorney Patrick Noaker.
“I would encourage other victims and survivors to come forward,” Jaker said. “Know that you are not alone. There are hundreds of you still in the shadows. There’s a chorus of us building as strong survivors. I want that chorus to grow.”
The settlement amount was not revealed by Jaker or the archdiocese.
Jaker sued the archdiocese last year, charging he had been sexually abused more than 10 times by the now-deceased Rev. Thomas Stitts while serving as an altar boy at St. Leo’s Church in St. Paul during the 1970s.
He said he was 11 years old when sexually molested by Stitts, who has been accused by at least a dozen other men over the past year.
Jaker’s suit, filed in October, was one of the first actions under the Minnesota Child Victims Act passed by the Legislature last year.
The new law lifts the civil statute of limitations for child abuse cases, opening a three-year window for people to sue over older cases.
It is an important settlement, said Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, of the Twin Cities archdiocese.
Not only is it the first settled under the Child Victims Act, but it was the first time that the archdiocese’s vicar general — the Rev. Charles Lachowitzer — had attended the mediation along with attorneys, he said.
“I think that really helped,” Cozzens said. “He [Lachowitzer] was able to hear firsthand from the victim.”
What also may have helped bring the settlement was testimony from a boy who personally witnessed Jaker’s sexual abuse. Noaker said another 11-year-old boy saw Jaker and Stitts during one of the incidents.
New law opens doors
For nearly 20 years, Minnesotans who were sexually abused as children had until age 24 to sue their abusers. Child advocates, however, argued that some victims took decades to come to terms with their trauma, and that time limits for filing claims thus needed to change.
Jaker appeared with his mother, Yvonne, who said she called the archdiocese chancery to report the abuse in 1971. She also informed her church council.
No one did a thing, she said, and Stitts was moved to other parishes, where he continued to abuse.
“Forty-three years ago I was shut out of the chancery office when I called,” said Yvonne Jaker, now of Fridley. “I suffered years of anguish thinking I’ve failed as a mother. Today we have won one step.”
Cozzens said he regretted that “the victim’s pleas for help were not heard earlier by the archdiocese.
“We are grateful now that we were able to listen,” he said.
Jaker, now married and living in Orange, Calif., works as a general manager of a heavy equipment company. He said he was in therapy 14 years.
He also spent eight years in the military in a submarine in the Pacific, which he attributes to fear of the outside world.
He said it would have been impossible for him to report the abuse as a young man, as was previously required under Minnesota law.
“When I was 17 … I was overwhelmed by fear,” said Jaker. “It was unthinkable to have a priest — who is the hand of God — have his hand on a child’s body.”
The lawsuit said the abuse “took a variety of forms,’’ including hugging, fondling over and under clothing, and molesting genitals.
More than 9,000 pages of archdiocese documents about Stitts were received by Noaker’s firm as it pursued the lawsuit, which charged the archdiocese with negligence in the supervision and retaining of Stitts.
It was slated for trial in December.
Another 12 alleged victims of the priest are suing the church through attorney Jeff Anderson. Noaker also is representing another alleged Stitts victim.
Stitts, who died in 1985, served in churches in St. Paul, Hastings, Edina, Long Lake and New Brighton.
“The archdiocese apologizes for the harm suffered by abuse victim/survivors and their families and friends and asks for forgiveness for the church’s shameful failures of the past,” said Cozzens. “We were grateful this week to hear this victim and make a positive step toward helping.”