ABC 6 Special: Abuse and Journey Back to Faith

(ABC 6 News) — Over the past several years, the Catholic Church has been hit with claims of clergy child sex abuse across the U.S. In Minnesota alone, the church has paid out millions in settlements to victims.

In 2021, the Diocese of Winona-Rochester reached its own $21.5 million settlement with 145 survivors. ABC 6 News sits down with one of them as he shares his dark past and his journey to find his faith again.

These days, you’ll find Eric Stenzel is walking by faith and not by sight. On this chilly winter day, walking into Christ Community Church in Rochester, each step is a healing one. Taking his seat, Eric reflects on his journey to getting here.
Because for more than two decades, he’s held on to a secret.

"When I was 8-years-old, I was sexually abused by a Catholic Priest, " said Stenzel.

Eric moved to Rochester with his parents in 1987. Growing up in a devout Catholic family, Pax Christi Church was his life.
However, this place of worship very quickly became his worst nightmare.

"The priests are put on such a stage, it’s almost like God talking to the parishioners, and for an 8-year-old boy to go through that, what do you do?" said Stenzel, "how do you react, you freeze, you become numb."

"After the incident, when I would run into him again, he would walk around with hands like this, but the eye contact in my mind, it was a "shhhhh, not thinking, it was a shhhh" don’t say anything," said Stenzel.

Eric didn’t say anything. Instead, he says he turned to drugs and alcohol as a teen to suppress the secret. His silence for so many years forced him to lash out at those around him. It wasn’t until he became an adult, that he finally confided in his parents.

"I finally told my parents at the age of 33, and I’ll never forget the reaction on my dad’s face. Knowing my dad, he’s a calm man," paused Stenzel, "disappointment that he couldn’t do anything," said Stenzel through tears.

"Someone commits a crime, you have to face the music for these crimes," said Stenzel.

"First question was, well you can’t sue the church, how do you sue the church?" said Michael Bryant, an attorney with Bradshaw and Bryant PLLC. He represents Stenzel and a number of other survivors in Minnesota in these civil lawsuits against the Catholic Church.

In 2013, lawmakers passed the Minnesota Child Victims Act, allowing child sex abuse survivors to file civil lawsuits removing the statute of limitations. Immediately the state saw a surge in sexual abuse claims against dozens of priests from several Minnesota dioceses.

"The courage is unbelievable," said Bryant, "every time you think you’ve heard the worst, you hear the worst."

In 2018, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis agreed to one of the largest clergy sex abuse payouts, a $210 million settlement with 450 victims.

In 2019, the Diocese of Duluth reached a $40 million settlement with 125 people who were sexually abused by priests. In 2020 the Diocese of Saint Cloud paid out $22.5 million to 70 sexual abuse victims.

In 2021, a U.S. bankruptcy court approved filings from the Winona-Rochester Diocese. The Diocese of Winona-Rochester reached a $21.5 million settlement with 145 survivors. It also includes the potential for additional compensation from certain insurance companies.

"The main thing that most people want, is they want acknowledgment from the church that these things really happened," said Bryant. "So, the idea is protecting future people, and that’s something that some of the survivors hold very strongly to, that they were able to protect other people in ways that they weren’t protected."

"I know within the Catholic faith, you put the term father before the name, Sylvester Brown will never hear me utter the word father before his name," said Stenzel.

According to the Diocese of Winona-Rochester’s website, Sylvester Brown was a priest at Pax Christi in the 80s. Brown along with 13 others are listed as a credibly accused priests. He died in 2010.

"Have I forgiven him?" asked Stenzel, "I’m close, what good is it going to do if I hold on to the hate, I’m getting there," said Stenzel through tears.

ABC 6 News reached out to Bishop John Quinn with the Diocese of Winona-Rochester for an interview. Bishop Quinn denied our request for an on-camera interview, but issued this statement, "I express my sincere apology to all those who have been affected by sexual abuse in our diocese. My prayers go out to all survivors of abuse and I pledge my continuing commitment to ensure that this terrible chapter in the history of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester never happens again.”

According to Bishop Quinn, as part of the reorganization plan, since 2002 the diocese has run more than 44 thousand criminal background checks on all clergy, employees, and volunteers. More than 16 thousand adults have been trained on warning signs of abuse and the diocese has been in compliance with a third-party auditor, The Charter For the Protection of Children and Young People, since 2002.

"How do you feel about the church now?" asked Lee of Stenzel.

"A lot less animosity, I need to let that go for my own spiritual healing, " he said, "it’s always been there, but it was stolen from me as a child and I’m getting it back."

"I deserve to get it back," he added.

Getting back not only his voice but his faith again. Eric was recently re-baptized at Christ Community Church, a church of his choice.

"It helps me survive every day, I feel releasing that negative aspect of my childhood is empowering, I feel like I have a voice and I want people to hear my voice," said Stenzel.

"Like I said, these tears, it’s not sadness, it’s me letting this all out because I haven’t for so long," said Stenzel.

Letting go of his past and praying for a brighter future.