|Court Gives Thumbs-Down to Sex Abuse Case
By Bill Dries
May 29, 2010
The Tennessee Appeals Court has ruled the statute of limitations has run in a Memphis civil case alleging the Catholic Diocese of Memphis was negligent in supervising a priest accused of child sexual abuse.
Norman Redwing, now in his late 40s, filed the suit against the Diocese in 2008, alleging he was sexually abused by the Rev. Milton Guthrie in the 1970s while Guthire was a priest at Holy Names parish. Guthrie died in 2002.
Redwing's lawsuit claimed the diocese knew or should have known that Guthrie was "a dangerous sexual predator with a depraved sexual interest in young boys." He also alleged the diocese was part of a coverup of such abuse by priests in general "at the highest levels."
In the ruling issued Thursday, the court upheld decisions in similar Tennessee court cases that those alleging such abuse and claiming negligence have a year after turning 18 years old to inquire whether the diocese knew of other allegations and failed to act.
"Notwithstanding the flood of allegations currently posited against the Catholic church worldwide, whether the church as a whole engaged in a systematic coverup is not our inquiry here," wrote appeals court judge David R. Farmer in the majority ruling.
The decision reverses a ruling in April 2009 by Circuit Court Judge D'Army Bailey, who has since retired.
Bailey questioned whether the standard is too "harsh" and should be applied in every instance. He refused to dismiss the Redwing case despite another appeals court ruling upholding the standard in a John Doe civil suit alleging child sexual abuse by the Rev. Paul W. St. Charles, another Memphis priest who died in 2009.
The "Doe ruling" figured prominently in the appeals court ruling in the Redwing case.
"As in Doe, the alleged child abuse is the injury in this case, not the diocese's alleged coverup," Farmer wrote in the ruling. "As in Doe, had Mr. Redwing filed a lawsuit upon reaching the age of majority, discovery in that case would have provided a mechanism for him to learn that the diocese had been negligent."
Appeals Court Judge Holly M. Kirby of Memphis dissented in the decision.
She termed the dismissal "premature."
Kirby said Redwing and his attorneys should have at least been entitled to conduct discovery.
The Redwing and Doe case involving St. Charles were different from some of the other civil suits alleging child sexual abuse by Memphis priests because the two plaintiffs did not claim repressed memories of such abuse.
The cases are similar to the claim in a 2004 John Doe lawsuit against the diocese and the Dominican religious order settled in 2009 for $2 million as it was about to go to trial.
In that case, John Doe claimed he was sexually abused when he was 14 years old by the Rev. Juan Carlos Duran.
When he turned 18 years old, the boy filed his lawsuit against the diocese and the Dominicans. The legal precedent upheld by the court of appeals last week figured prominently in the timing of the pivotal lawsuit.
The appeals court also ruled that the way the diocese of Memphis supervised Guthrie was a valid claim for a civil lawsuit and did not violate the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
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