|Tn Supreme Court Hears Priest Case
By Bill Dries
April 7, 2011
The Tennessee Supreme Court is in Jackson, Tenn., Thursday to hear a Memphis civil case involving allegations of child sexual abuse by a Catholic priest that could change the criteria for hearing such claims.
In Norman Redwing v The Roman Catholic Diocese of Memphis, Redwing alleges he was sexually abused during the 1970s by Rev. Milton Guthrie while Guthrie was pastor of the Holy Names parish in North Memphis. Redwing isn't suing Guthrie, who died in 2002. No criminal charges were filed against Guthrie.
Redwing is suing the Memphis Catholic Diocese claiming it knew or should have known that Guthrie was "a dangerous sexual predator with a depraved sexual interest in young boys."
Attorneys for the diocese sought to have the case dismissed claiming the statute of limitations had run on the civil claim. Redwing is not claiming that repressed memories of the abuse surfaced. So, the diocese argues, under Tennessee law he had a year after he turned 18 years old to inquire with the diocese to see if they knew of any sexual abuse by Guthrie and what they did. That's when the statute of limitations began to run.
Redwing filed his lawsuit in 2008.
The standard has come into play in other lawsuits alleging negligence by the diocese involving priests accused of sexually abusing children.
Attorneys for a 14-year-old boy abused by former priest Juan Carlos Duran in Memphis in late 1999 were mindful of the rule and advised the boy and his family to begin making such inquiries when he turned 18.
The boy, identified as John Doe, filed suit against the diocese and the Dominican religious order four years after the abuse when he turned 18. Both defendants settled the suit for $2 million, the largest settlement in any of the Memphis priest sexual abuse cases in which a figure was disclosed.
In the Redwing case, Circuit Court Judge D'Army Bailey, since retired, denied the motion to dismiss the case based on the rule. He questioned whether the standard was "harsh" and should be applied in every case.
The diocese appealed.
The state appeals court in June ruled that Bailey was wrong and the statute of limitations had run in the civil case.
"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," Appeals Court Judge David R. Farmer wrote in the majority opinion. "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."
But Appeals Court Judge Holly M. Kirby of Memphis dissented, calling the dismissal "premature."
She said Redwing and his attorneys should have at least been allowed to conduct discovery with a decision on whether or not he had a case to come after that.
"Even if Mr. Redwing had filed a lawsuit against the priest when he reached majority, there is a substantial possibility that he would not have discovered that he had a claim of negligent supervision against the diocese," Kirby wrote.
The justices are not expected to rule after hearing from both sides Thursday in Jackson. They will probably issue a written ruling at a later date.
The decision could affect several other civil suits filed against the diocese since 2004 alleging child sexual abuse by a priest.
The John Doe civil suit against the diocese naming Rev. Daniel Dupree was also dismissed for the same reason at issue in the Redwing case. The appeals court majority opinion cites the court's own ruling in that case to back its decision in the Redwing case.
A second John Doe civil suit against the diocese naming Rev. Paul St. Charles was also dismissed for the same reason.
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