Late Duluth-area Priest Trial Faced Decades of Sexual Misconduct Allegations
By Tom Olsen
May 11, 2016
Mike Finnegan describes the Rev. J. Vincent Fitzgerald as “one of the worst predators” he’s seen in his career as an attorney and advocate for victims of child sexual abuse.
Fitzgerald had already been accused of sexual misconduct when he arrived in northeastern Minnesota in the early 1960s, according to documents publicly released Wednesday. Allegations continued over the next 20-plus years, much of which time he spent working at parishes throughout the Diocese of Duluth. Fitzgerald died in 2009.
Finnegan, who works in the St. Paul law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates, now represents 17 people who say they were abused by the priest, but the attorney said there are likely dozens of additional victims who have yet to come forward.
“This perpetrator was known since 1963 to have been abusing kids,” Finnegan said at a news conference Wednesday on the steps of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. “He was allowed to stay in Minnesota and allowed to keep abusing kids.”
Finnegan released a number of documents from Fitzgerald’s personnel file at the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order to which he belonged.
The documents were used in a trial last fall in which a St. Paul jury ordered the Diocese of Duluth to pay $4.9 million in damages to Bill Weis, who said he was abused by Fitzgerald in Squaw Lake in 1978. The major verdict led to the diocese filing for bankruptcy in December.
Various letters and psychiatric evaluation reports contained in Fitzgerald’s file paint a picture of a priest who was frequently subject to abuse allegations and was repeatedly moved from parish to parish and diocese to diocese.
The documents reveal that Fitzgerald was “moved quickly” from Illinois to Holy Cross Catholic Church in Orr, Minn., in 1963 after an allegation of “inappropriate involvement with a young girl.” Fitzgerald allegedly admitted that he tore the swimsuit bottom off an 8- to 10-year-old girl at a public swimming pool.
A later report from the Oblates indicates that “the parents agreed at that time to take no action if Father Fitzgerald was moved immediately from that area.”
Fitzgerald’s assignment history indicates that he served at parishes in Bigfork, Nett Lake, Northome, Orr and Squaw Lake within the Diocese of Duluth. He also had stints in the Diocese of Crookston and in South Dakota, often working in Native American communities.
A 1990 letter to Fitzgerald from the Rev. James Deegan, provincial of the Oblates, was included in the file.
“For the past twenty-five years, there have been concerns voiced by a number of people in various locations concerning your relationships with young people,” Deegan wrote at the time. “I mention this, not to be punitive or heavy handed, rather to say that we must be prudent and careful not to expose yourself or anyone else to any unnecessary difficulties.”
Attorneys for the Diocese of Duluth asserted at the Weis trial that Fitzgerald was employed and under supervision of the Oblates, not the diocese, when any abuse occurred.
Spokesman Kyle Eller said Wednesday that diocese officials were not made aware of any allegations against Fitzgerald until December 2013.
“In our diocese, any cases involving Fitzgerald will be fairly addressed as part of the bankruptcy process,” he said. “For more than two decades now we have made preventing this crime a priority, with policies including background checks and training to prevent sexual abuse. Putting victims first, we continue to urge anyone who has been a victim of sexual abuse to come forward and receive help.”
Fitzgerald left the Duluth diocese by 1986 and became a pastor at a parish in Gainesville, Mo., according to his file.
By 1988, parishioners at the church threatened to “go public about his relationship with young men.” According to the documents, Fitzgerald left town the next day, despite Deegan’s advice that doing so “could appear to be an admission of guilt.”
Fitzgerald later worked at parishes in Illinois, Florida and California. When he learned that the San Diego Diocese was going to conduct background checks, Fitzgerald requested a move back to the Diocese of Duluth, according to the documents.
“I told him that certainly the Duluth Diocese would not be a good area to go since, allegedly, that is where at least one incident of misconduct took place,” Deegan wrote in 1992. “I also informed him, that because of the number of cases that have surfaced in the Minnesota area, this was certainly not a good location for any priest with some question marks in his background.”
Fitzgerald served the remainder of his career in Illinois, where he died in 2009 at age 89. He later was added to the Duluth Diocese’s list of priests considered “credibly accused” of abuse.
The Weis case was the first to go to trial under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to files suits that would otherwise be barred by statutes of limitation.
More than 50 people have filed abuse claims against the diocese through the bankruptcy proceeding, with Finnegan saying he expects to see a flurry of additional filings ahead of the May 25 deadline.
The diocese and representatives of victims are expected to begin mediation shortly after the window closes, with both sides expressing interest in reaching an amicable agreement.
Finnegan on Wednesday also announced a settlement in an unrelated case involving Fitzgerald. He said his client, identified only as Doe 19, reached a confidential agreement with the Oblates and the Diocese of Crookston in a 2013 lawsuit alleging abuse that occurred in western Minnesota in 1984.