As a Catholic priest, Thomas Adamson won the trust of the boys he coached and others he came to know in the parishes he served from southern Minnesota — including Winona — to the Twin Cities.
But by the time he was ousted from the ministry after more than 25 years, he admitted to molesting 10 boys and was accused of sexually abusing dozens more.
It was the cases against him that soon exposed a sex abuse scandal involving hundreds of priests, even more victims and a coverup by the church.
Removed from ministry in 1985 and the priesthood in 2009, he lived out his final days in Rochester. He died last week at age 85.
“Even though he has passed, there’s a legacy of pain and sorrow,” said Twin Cities attorney Jeff Anderson.
Anderson began to uncover the sex abuse scandal when he filed suit on behalf of one of Adamson’s victims, “John Doe 1,” in 1983.
His parents came to Anderson in 1982 after learning their son had been raped by Adamson years before. They went to the archdiocese but were ignored, Anderson said. The parents were bewildered and heartbroken.
After Anderson filed suit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, other suits followed.
“I pulled on the string and the scandal and coverup unraveled,” he said Tuesday. “It was the beginning of a revelation of the peril that priests posed that Adamson was emblematic of — and of the practice employed by the bishops in concealing it.”
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In a court deposition, Adamson admitted to abusing at least 10 boys as he was moved from parish to parish from the 1960s to the 1980s. He was accused of abusing at least 37 children before he was removed from ministry.
Adamson testified that he met his first victims around 1961 while coaching basketball at St. Adrian High School in Adrian, Minn., about 20 miles west of Worthington. He said he admitted the abuse to the bishop of the Winona Diocese as early as 1964 but no action was taken to remove him from ministry or to warn parents or children.
Outwardly, he was an affectionate and caring authority figure, said Anderson, who has represented clergy abuse cases against the archdiocese for more than 30 years.
“He used that power and position to satisfy his own needs,” Anderson said. “That made him a deeply flawed man and a very dangerous predator. … He was given access and opportunity time and time again.”
In his testimony, Adamson acknowledged he abused teen boys in school gymnasiums, his car and his home. He remembered the names of some boys and not others.
Adamson was ordained in 1958 and served briefly in the Winona area, at Saint Casimir and Cotter High School from 1958-1961, as well as St. John’s in Caledonia from 1963-64.
Anderson named Adamson in more than 20 lawsuits. About a half dozen of those cases are still pending and will continue despite Adamson’s death.
Thirty-five years after Anderson filed the first lawsuit against Adamson and the church, a bankruptcy judge in the fall of 2018 approved a $210 million settlement between the archdiocese and more than 400 survivors. It was one of the largest such settlements in the country. For the survivors, it brought the end to a critical chapter in their ordeal. In November, the Winona Diocese, now named the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, announced plans to file for bankruptcy. In addition to Adamson, 16 other men who served as priests in the diocese were accused of sexual abuse.
Adamson, who died Feb. 25, was buried during private services.