Lawsuit Calls on Duluth Diocese to Identify Priests Accused of Abuse
By Tom Olsen
Duluth News Tribune
December 6, 2013
A prominent Twin Cities law firm is calling for the public release of names and files of at least 17 Diocese of Duluth priests who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children.
In a suit filed Monday in State District Court in Duluth, attorney Mike Finnegan of St. Paul-based Jeff Anderson and Associates claims that the diocese was negligent in allowing sexual abuse to continue and has created a nuisance by not releasing information about the accused priests. The suit was filed on behalf of an anonymous man, identified as John Doe 28, who says he was abused by a Duluth priest in the 1970s.
“Kids in this community are not safe until these 17 names are known to the public, known to parishioners and known to parents,” attorney Mike Finnegan said at a Monday press conference in Duluth. “These people, even if they’re not in the ministry anymore, are in our community and around our kids.”
The suit comes on the heels of success by the law firm in the Twin Cities, where a Ramsey County judge last week ordered that the Minneapolis-St. Paul and Winona dioceses release the names and limited information about accused priests.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis complied last Friday, naming 30 priests who it said were credibly accused of abuse, and four others who were the subjects of unsubstantiated claims. The Diocese of Winona also said it would comply with the order, and has until Dec. 17 to do so.
The Twin Cities release contained limited biographical information for each priest, including parishes served and current status with the church. The Winona release is expected to contain similar information for approximately 13 priests.
The Duluth suit asks for documents detailing each priest’s history of abuse and sexual behavior, and Finnegan said he’d like to see that information released about priests throughout the state.
Finnegan said the firm is also working on litigation seeking similar information from the state’s three other dioceses – Crookston, New Ulm and St. Cloud.
The Diocese of Duluth reported in 2004 that it had received credible accusations against 17 of its former priests. The number was included in the national John Jay report, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Fr. James Bissonette, the diocese’s vicar general, said in a statement to the News Tribune that the diocese has avoided releasing the names of accused priests in order to protect those who may have been wrongly accused.
“The allegations in today’s lawsuit violate the teachings of our Church and the standards of human decency,” Bissonette said. “They demand that all of us work to see the truth known and justice done in this case and in every instance where such concerns are raised.
“While we, like other Minnesota dioceses, have generally been reluctant to disclose the names of diocesan clergy included in the 2004 John Jay Study, we have done so only because the list is an imperfect means for identifying those credibly accused. We continue to seek a better way to let those credibly accused of such transgressions be named without harming those who may have been wrongly accused.
“On behalf of our local Church, I offer my most sincere apologies to anyone who has been a victim of sexual abuse by a cleric. We hope any who have suffered abuse and remain hidden will come forward. We will continue to use our Safe Environment training and protocols and every tool at our disposal to make our parishes, schools, religious education and youth programs the safest places for our young people to be.”
Finnegan, however, called on Bishop Paul Sirba, who recently addressed the media about the diocese’s efforts to combat sexual abuse, to release the priests’ names.
“Not too long ago, this bishop promised the community here that he would be transparent and that he would fight child sex abuse,” Finnegan said. “The best way that he could do that today is to release these names.”
Verne Wagner, the Northeast Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said releasing names would add accountability and ensure safety of children.
“If you’re looking for a doctor, you can go to a website and find out if that doctor’s ever been in trouble. You can find that about a dentist, you can find that about a nurse, you can find that about a lawyer,” he said. “But we can’t find that out about a priest, the ones that are with our kids.”
According to the suit, the man was repeatedly the victim of “unpermitted sexual contact” by the late Fr. Robert Klein, a priest who, at the time, was assigned to St. Jean’s Elementary School and the Sacred Heart Church. The man was approximately 11 to 14 years old when the alleged abuse occurred over a period of several years in the early 1970s, according to the suit.
The suit alleges that the diocese was previously aware of abuse complaints against Klein, but allowed him to continue working with children. In the 1960s, Klein was sent to Milwaukee for treatment as a result of “problems” that arose while he was serving at parishes in Gnesen and Lakewood, Minn., and officials also received reports that he was sexually abusing boys in the early 1970s, the suit alleges.
“The Diocese failed to inform law enforcement authorities that Klein had sexually abused minor children,” the suit states. “As a direct result, Klein avoided criminal investigation and prosecution and continued to abuse minors.”
The suit claims negligence by the diocese in allowing Klein to continue to have unsupervised contact with children following the abuse complaints.
Diocese of Duluth spokesman Kyle Eller told the News Tribune that the diocese has no records of abuse accusations against Klein prior to being served with the lawsuit, but acknowledged that there have been other public, substantiated accusations against him.
Eller also said that there are currently no active clergy in the diocese who have been accused of sexual abuse, and said the diocese has enforced a sexual misconduct policy since 1992.
In October, the diocese announced that Fr. Cornelius Kelleher had been removed from the ministry following a credible sexual abuse accusation. It was the first credible claim received by the diocese since 1995, Eller said.