Archdiocese Targeted in Lawsuits Alleging Sexual Abuse by 2 Priests
St. Paul Pioneer Press
December 06, 1991
Two lawsuits involving alleged sexual abuse by priests were filed against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on Thursday.
The first suit alleges that the Rev. Michael Thurner abused a boy from 1980 through 1984 while he was a priest at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Hopkins and at the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul. Thurner resigned from the Church of St. Therese in Highland Park on Sunday.
The second suit involves a deceased priest, the Rev. Francis Reynolds, who is alleged to have sexually abused a teen-age girl from about 1972 through 1984 while she was a parishioner and student at the St. Francis Xavier parish and school in Buffalo, Minn. Reynolds died in 1987.
Attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who filed both suits, is charging that both Thurner and Reynolds were unfit and that the archdiocese and the three parishes involved committed "reckless employment" in allowing the priests to continue their duties after the allegations were reported.
In the Thurner suit, Anderson is asking for punitive damages as well as compensatory damages.
Earlier this year, Anderson represented a 24-year-old Columbia Heights man who won $2.7 million in punitive damages from the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Winona diocese for sexual abuse by the Rev. Thomas Adamson when the man was 13 years old. A judge later reduced the award to $1 million.
The Rev. Kevin McDonough, chancellor of the archdiocese, said he had not received information about the suit involving Reynolds but that archdiocesan officials have been aware of the Thurner case for over a year.
"We talked to Father Thurner about the possibility of a lawsuit and he became concerned," McDonough said "He said he didn't want to take his parish through this and so he resigned last Sunday. We wanted the people at St. Therese's to hear it from us. So, then we sent a letter which they received on Tuesday."
The letter, which was signed by Archbishop John Roach, said that church officials knew of the accusations four years before assigning Thurner to work in the St. Therese parish. But Roach said in the letter he did not "assign him to work with you until I had appropriate reassurances that it was safe to do so."
McDonough said that when the archdiocese heard about allegations against Thurner in 1983, he was pulled from St. John's parish in Hopkins and transferred to St. Joseph parish in West St. Paul. At the same time, early in 1983, Thurner's superiors ordered him into counseling, which continued for more than a year.
Following the counseling sessions, the archdiocese followed up on Thurner's mental condition through assessments by professional counselors and monitoring sessions with top diocesan officials, including Roach. Thurner could not be reached for comment.
But Anderson said church leaders did not monitor Thurner closely and he continued to sexually abuse the youth after he was moved to West St. Paul.
"The fact of the matter is that Archbishop Roach did not follow up on that," Anderson said, "and did not know until 1990 that Thurner had stopped seeing his counselor in 1985. So if they assert that they got him treatment that is a bald-faced mischaracterization."
"I think it's one of the worst scenarios," Anderson said, "and I think any position they take is untenable." Aside from the legal and financial ramifications, sexual abuse cases take a heavy emotional toll in parishes where the accused priest has served.
Diane Eisbach, who has been a member of St. Therese's parish for 16 years and serves on the pastoral council, said Thurner was an excellent leader and many parishioners are happy the diocese gave the 66-year-old-priest a second chance.
"Father Thurner came into St. Therese's and made us a family again," Eisbach said. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place when he resigned last Sunday."
Eisbach said she also understood why archdiocesan officials did not tell parishioners about the allegations against Thurner.
"It would be impossible," Eisbach said. "Can you imagine the suspicion?"
Edition: Metro Final Section: Metro Page: 3B Source: Clark Morphew, Staff Writer
Correction: In a Dec. 5 story about two lawsuits involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests, one name of a defendant was incorrect. The correct name is the Rev. Robert Michael Thurner.