Man sues Duluth diocese under new abuse statute
Forum News Service
Fifty-five-year-old Michael DeRoche stood on the steps of the St. Louis County Courthouse holding a photograph of a 9- or 10-year old boy standing obediently straight with his hands tucked to his sides and his heels together.
DeRoche said he was that “little guy,” and at the time of the photo he was being sexually abused by a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Duluth.
DeRoche said he wanted to put an adult face on that photo and keep any other children from being victimized by priests by bringing the first civil lawsuit filed in St. Louis County by a person alleging abuse under the Minnesota Child Victim’s Act. A new Minnesota law signed by Gov. Mark Dayton last month eliminates the civil statute of limitations for children who were sexually abused and allows a three-year window for past victims of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits against their perpetrator and the institution that may have allowed the abuse.
“I was this little guy that was hurt for over a year by a priest,” DeRoche said of his boyhood photograph before going on to explain why he brought the civil lawsuit. “It’s not to seek a vendetta or vengeance or hurt, but it is to find healing and hope for not only myself and closure, but for all the other kids out there.”
DeRoche’s lawsuit asks for more than $50,000 and that the Diocese of Duluth publicly release the names of all “credibly accused child molesting priests (in the diocese), each priest’s history of abuse, each priest’s pattern of grooming and sexual behavior,” and his last known address.
DeRoche is represented by attorney Mike Finnegan, who works with Jeff Anderson and Associates, a St. Paul-based law firm that has represented hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by authority figures and clergy.
The lawsuit claims that the diocese publicly admitted in 2004 that there were 17 priests who worked in the diocese who had been accused of sexually molesting minors, but the names of those priests have not been made public. The lawsuit alleges that as a result, children are at risk of being molested by those priests.
DeRoche is a 1976 graduate of Proctor High School and attended St. Rose Catholic Church there. He now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and runs a consulting company.
He said his boyhood priest, the Rev. John Nicholson, told him he was a “special kid” and wanted to induct him into the Junior Legion of Mary.
“He had me come to his rectory on a weekly basis,” DeRoche remembered. “I lived three houses away. Every week for a summer, I was given private lessons, but the lessons were not about the Legion of Mary. It was about sexually molesting me or having me satisfy his needs. … I complained to my parents. I said, ‘I don’t want to go anymore because it’s too hard.’ At that time, Catholics just did what we were supposed to do and we said, ‘Buck up, son.’ It’s not against my parents, but it was just one of those things. We lived in a different world then. So it was a period of over a year of being seriously hurt by the priest.”
Nicholson worked in the diocese as a priest from 1948 to 1988 at eight parishes. He also served as diocesan director of scouting. He died in 1988.
The Diocese of Duluth said it instituted a sexual misconduct policy in 1992. The initial lawsuit regarding Nicholson was filed in August 1993. It said that after meeting with pastors who had followed Nicholson as pastor, Bishop Roger Schwietz, then Bishop of Duluth, appealed through parish bulletins for any victims of sexual abuse to report it.
DeRoche said that he spoke to Schwietz 15 or 20 years ago. “I spoke to Bishop Schwietz and asked him to be clear with what happened and to protect the other children that had been abused, and at that time he decided not to come forward with helping us,” he said. “So I’m here for myself; I’m here for all the other survivors, and I’m here for the Catholic church so that they can come clean and be whole and be the kind of institution that they want to be.”
It its written response to the lawsuit, the Diocese of Duluth said that it “deeply regrets the long-lasting and devastating effects of sexual misconduct on the part of the clergy and is completely committed to assisting its victims and preventing any recurrence of these crimes. The misconduct policy put in place has been strengthened and revised over time, including with reference to the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People’ established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
The diocese said it urges “anyone who has been a victim of such despicable crimes” to report it to the civil authorities and to the diocese at 2830 E. Fourth St., Duluth, or call (218) 724-9111, or contact one of the diocesan assistance coordinators, whose contact information is available on the Diocese of Duluth’s website, www.dioceseduluth.org.
Vern Wagner, Northern Minnesota director of the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests, attended the news conference. Wagner was also a member of St. Rose Catholic church and said he was abused by Nicholson as a boy.
Wagner said he, too, wants the diocese to release the names of the 17 priests who molested minors.
“This is not about protecting the church,” Wagner said. “This is about protecting children. Michael is three years younger than I am. If somebody would have stepped forward and said, ‘This man (Nicholson) is molesting children’ and done something about it, perhaps this man (DeRoche) would not have been molested. How many other children would not have been molested if grownups, the bishop, would have done their job?”