$500k at Stake for Catholic Church in Nevada Sex Case Appeal
January 6, 2015
A lawyer representing the Roman Catholic Church told the Nevada Supreme Court on Tuesday that holding the church in Wisconsin responsible for sex abuse by a priest after he moved to Las Vegas could put Nevada state agencies on the hook for wrongdoing by every doctor and lawyer they license.
"The danger in this case is that we would be placing every licensing agency in this state liable," said Peter Mazzeo, attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay.
Mazzeo appealed during oral arguments in Carson City for the seven justices to overturn a 2012 jury award of $500,000 to a Las Vegas man who said he was molested as a 13-year-old by a priest, John Patrick Feeney. Feeney was pastor at the time at St. Francis De Sales in Las Vegas.
Tuesday's oral arguments were video-streamed on the Supreme Court website. A ruling is expected later.
Church attorneys argued in written filings that the case shouldn't have been filed in Nevada, that it should have been thrown out before trial, and that the Green Bay diocese shouldn't have been held responsible in 2012 for Feeney's actions in 1984.
When Feeney moved from Wisconsin to Las Vegas, he hadn't been accused or convicted of improper relationships, Mazzeo said Tuesday.
It wasn't until after Feeney was convicted in Wisconsin in 2004 of molesting two boys, defrocked and imprisoned that the Las Vegas man, known only as John Doe 119, filed a civil lawsuit in Las Vegas in 2008. Feeney was released from prison in 2011.
The Green Bay Diocese paid a $700,000 civil judgment in the Wisconsin case.
The Nevada case alleged that Feeney's conduct was well known in Wisconsin, but the Green Bay diocese failed to notify officials in Nevada.
Justice Michael Cherry asked Mazzeo to consider cases of school teachers accused of improprieties quietly leave one school or district for another — a practice dubbed by critics as "passing the trash."
"What did Green Bay know and when did they know it ... as far as their obligation or duty?" Cherry asked, referring what he termed "the old Watergate question."
Mazzeo responded that diocese officials in Wisconsin didn't ask officials in Nevada to take Feeney. He said Feeney moved first to Arizona and then San Diego before moving to Las Vegas.
"He was not employed by the Diocese of Green Bay when he worked in Nevada and touched the boy," the church attorney said.
Attorney Michael Finnegan, representing the man who won the lower-court judgment, pointed to testimony at trial that church officials in Green Bay were keeping track of Feeney in Nevada.
Finnegan told the justices that a priest is always responsible to this home diocese.
"He should have never gotten to this community, never gotten access to this state, and never had access to these kids," the attorney said.