Tennessee Supreme Court: Lawsuit Alleging Abuse by Priest Can Go Forward
By Sheila Burke
February 28, 2012
NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Monday that a man who says he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest in the 1970s can go ahead with his lawsuit against the Diocese of Memphis.
Norman Redwing, 51, sued the diocese in 2008, nearly 30 years past the statute of limitations. Typically, victims have only a year after their 18th birthday to file a lawsuit.
The suit claims he was abused from 1972 to 1974 by now-deceased priest Milton Guthrie, and that church officials knew or should have known the priest was "a dangerous sexual predator with a depraved sexual interest in young boys."
A lower court dismissed Redwing's suit, saying he waited too long to file. But state law makes some exceptions to the statute of limitations.
Redwing had argued that his case was one of the exceptions because he was accusing the diocese of benefiting from a cover-up. Redwing, according to court documents, said the church misled him and his family into thinking that church officials were unaware that Guthrie was a sexual predator.
Representatives with the diocese did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The court's ruling was hailed as significant by some.
"This gives victims of clergy sexual abuse their first huge victory in holding the Catholic Church in the state of Tennessee accountable for crimes against children," said Susan Vance, a state chapter coordinator for a group that helps people abused by priests.
The unanimous decision, written by Justice William C. Koch, said the burden is now on Redwing to "demonstrate that his claims against the diocese should not be time-barred."
"Our denial of the diocese's motion to dismiss does not prevent the diocese from continuing to assert its statute of limitations defense or to again pursue this defense by motion or otherwise once all the relevant facts are known."
One of Redwing's attorneys, Gary K. Smith, said the decision means that each abuse case against the church will rise and fall depending on whether the church knew of the abuse and when, and whether victims inquired about whether the church knew of the abuse.
"It will always be case dependent," Smith said.
Redwing's lawsuit also accused the church of negligent hiring and supervision of Guthrie. The diocese argued that employment decisions are a religious matter and the courts are barred from interfering. But the Tennessee Supreme Court said Redwing can pursue that claim against the church as long as it doesn't stray into religious doctrine.