First trial against Duluth diocese set to begin
By Tom Olsen
Duluth News Tribune
October 17, 2015
The Diocese of Duluth is slated to go before a jury Monday to face child sexual abuse claims in a potential landmark case.
Barring a late settlement or other legal action, the lawsuit would become the first to go to trial under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, a 2013 law that opened a window for victims of decades-old abuse to file suit in cases that otherwise would be barred by statutes of limitation.
The trial, which could last up to two weeks, is set to begin Monday morning before Judge John Guthmann in Ramsey County District Court in St. Paul.
The Catholic diocese is facing negligence claims made by an unidentified man known in court papers only as Doe 30. The alleged victim filed suit in February 2014, claiming he was sexually abused by Father J. Vincent Fitzgerald in the 1970s.
Fitzgerald at the time was assigned to St. Catherine’s Church in Squaw Lake, Minn., within the Duluth diocese. The suit states that he spent 12 weeks at a pastoral education program in Willmar, Minn., in 1976 and asked the alleged victim to return to Squaw Lake with him.
The alleged victim, then a 13-year-old parishioner at St. Thomas More Church in Lake Lillian, Minn., came from a devout Catholic family and agreed to serve temporarily as an altar boy, according to the suit. The plaintiff alleges that he repeatedly was abused during his two-week stay in Squaw Lake.
The suit, which alleges negligence, is seeking the full, public release of priests’ files and documents detailing the diocese’s handling of abuse allegations.
Fitzgerald, who died in 2009, worked at six parishes within the Diocese of Duluth from 1957-83: St. Michael’s in Northome, Our Lady of the Snows in Bigfork, St. Theresa in Effie, Holy Cross in Orr, Immaculate Conception in Nett Lake and St. Catherine in Squaw Lake.
“We believe that Vincent Fitzgerald could be one of the worst perpetrators in the state of Minnesota,” the plaintiff’s attorney, Mike Finnegan, said in February 2014. “We believe that this man had access to kids for years and years and years, and his higher-ups knew that he abused kids or should have known that he abused kids, and kept moving him around from parish to parish, where he abused more kids.”
The Diocese of Duluth in December 2013 began publicly listing its former priests considered “credibly accused” of child sexual abuse. The list, available on the diocese’s website, contains 31 names.
However, Bishop Paul Sirba and other officials have declined calls to publicly release documents, arguing that the information should remain confidential.
The diocese previously responded to the Doe 30 lawsuit by noting that strict policies have been enacted to prevent abuse and encouraging victims to come forward to authorities.
“It is our most profound hope and the daily subject of our prayers that all those who suffered abuse by a member of our clergy find peace and healing through the love of Christ and that they come forward to civil authorities and to the church’s diocesan assistance coordinators,” Vicar General James Bissonette said at the time.
Attorneys for the parties declined to comment on the case ahead of trial.
Doe 30’s suit initially included nuisance claims against the diocese, which since have been dismissed by the court. It also named the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order to which Fitzgerald belonged, and the Diocese of New Ulm (Minn.) as defendants.
The Oblates in July settled with victims and agreed to disclose the names and files of accused priests. The New Ulm diocese was dismissed from the lawsuit by Judge Guthmann.
Abuse claims are pending against the Diocese of Duluth in three additional cases brought under the Child Victims Act. The window to sue remains open through May 25.