10/13/2014 04:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A New Turn on Priestly Sex Abuse

Attorney Jeff Anderson (center) surrounded by clergy sex abuse survivor advocates (left) and clergy (right)

A historic turn in the international battle against sexual abuse by priests may have begun today in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For the first time in 30 years, the world's leading clergy sex abuse litigator, Jeff Anderson, stood with two high-ranking Catholic priests and some 70 survivors of child sexual abuse, and announced what he called "a transition from litigation to mediation and to resolution" of claims.

Anderson says that for the first time, a Catholic Archdiocese and its attorneys have come to the table and sought to work with his firm to proactively stamp out priestly sex abuse and create a safe place for children, instead of battling with him in court over money. "They are finally putting survivors first," he said.

Anderson acknowledged that is was big change for some survivors to swallow, and to help allay doubts he was joined at the podium by prominent survivors and moral activists Al Michaud and Jim Keenan, who expressed hope that the agreement would lead to a new era in Church conduct in handling sex abuse claims.

In taking the step, Anderson acknowledged he is putting his international credibility with survivors on the line. But he says it's not the end, it's the beginning of a new "trust but verify" approach involving a 17-point protocol that, he says, will improve transparency and accountability by turning over much of the power in the situation to outside parties.

"This has never been about sex," Anderson said. "It's been about power, and they are turning over the power to us. We're not going to protect children from sexual abuse by words or by policies. We're going to protect them by actions, and the Catholic church is taking some concrete actions here, and we will judge how well the Catholic church does on this new protocol by the actions they continue to take. But they have come to us and expressed a sincere desire to join us on the right side of the issue, for the first time."

John Nienstedt, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, was notably absent from the packed announcement. Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who appeared on Nienstedt's behalf, said the archbishop was in Africa, but had been supporting the effort over the last several weeks. Nienstedt issued a statement calling the agreement "a significant step" toward the goals of child protection and of restoring trust with the community.

The core element of what Anderson calls the "Child Protection Protocol" is the appointment of outside law enforcement personnel to lead investigations into all claims of child sexual abuse by priests and other church personnel. The church will make all files available to law enforcement and will publish the names of all priests credibly accused of sexual abuse within no more than 45 days.

This will, Anderson says, likely lead to "an avalanche, a floodgate" of new disclosures over the coming months, but will also allow church officials to work more proactively with Anderson's law firm, exposing their finances and negotiating with what Vicar General Fr. Charles Lachowitzer called "a new way."

If Anderson is successful, the approach could form a model for transforming the Catholic church's policies worldwide, and end a problem that some church officials have said extends back 1,000 years, while perhaps limiting church financial exposure. "Bankruptcy is a possibility," said Lachowitzer, "but it's only one possibility. We share the goal of creating a safe place for children."

"I'm hopeful," said Keenan, "but I'm also skeptical, because the church has reached out a hand before, only to have to withdrawn."