With Sacred Heart lawsuit, questions over whether parishes are liable

By Becky Jacobs
Grand Forks Herald
June 18, 2016

Sacred Heart in East Grand Forks.

A Twin Cities attorney and Diocese of Crookston monsignor say they want the same thing: healing and justice for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

But where attorney Mike Finnegan and Monsignor Mike Foltz differ is who should be sued in the latest wave of lawsuits related to the recent May 25 deadline of the Minnesota Child Victims Act.

Sacred Heart in East Grand Forks was one of the parishes sued before the deadline with claims that the Rev. Stanley Bourassa, who died in 2004, committed sexual abuse of a minor while assigned to the parish from 1965 to 1968.

It's not that parishes weren't sued before in clergy sexual abuse cases, but there has been a conscious decision to include both parishes and the diocese more recently, Finnegan said.

"They were sued in all the Minnesota cases across the state right now to protect the survivors' rights," said Finnegan, who works with Jeff Anderson & Associates, which is known for its role in pursuing cases involving clergy abuse. "It was kind of a mixed bag historically of whether the parish has been sued or not."

Finnegan told Forum News Service he estimates approximately 1,000 claims were brought against individuals and organizations statewide during the final weeks before the deadline, and about 200 alleged perpetrators were identified for the first time.

"There's 16 that I'm aware of that we have right now against the Diocese of Crookston," Finnegan said about lawsuits stemming from his office.

The case against Sacred Heart is still new, Finnegan said, and there aren't updates yet on how it's going.

"We'll talk to them and try to figure out what's the best approach to move the cases forward," Finnegan said.

Who's liable?

Some of the cases filed from Finnegan's office involve allegations that date back decades.

"If the priest is dead, for example, you could say, 'Well shucks, what's the reason to file the lawsuit if he can't hurt somebody else?' And the first response from virtually every victim I've ever spoke to is ... to deter coverups in the future," said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a nonprofit that helps survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

It gets messy deciding who is responsible or liable in these cases. A relationship between a parish and a diocese goes beyond the employer-employee relationship, Finnegan said. With the way the Catholic Church of Minnesota is structured, "They are completely controlled by the bishop," he said, so a bishop has a big say in who is assigned where.

"I think it's a stretch to say the least, you know, when they make the claims to say that they're not the ones in control of the parish and the bishop isn't the one, and the diocese isn't the one pulling the strings," Finnegan said.

This debate came up in a civil lawsuit last March against the Diocese of Crookston, claiming the diocese failed to properly supervise the Rev. J. Vincent Fitzgerald at a time when it knew the sexual abuse of children by clergy was a problem. The diocese's attorney argued that there wasn't anything in the case that indicated the diocese was aware Fitzgerald, who died in 2009, could abuse a child, and the case should be dismissed.

Finnegan said his goal in suing both the parish and diocese is making sure there are no loopholes or derailments that halt a civil case in its tracks.

"What's been happening more recently is the diocese, when we haven't sued (the parish), they've gone into court and said, 'He's not our guy. He's the parish's guy. The parish is the one who pays him. The parish is the one where he lives. And so, we don't have anything to do with him. We're not responsible,' " Finnegan said.

Finnegan's office doesn't buy that, and that's why they sued both "across the board," just in case, he said.

"If we hadn't sued the parish or at least protected those rights, the survivor would be out completely if a court agreed with a bishop if they made those arguments," Finnegan said.

But Foltz isn't so sure it's fair for parishes to be included in the lawsuits. Foltz has "been on both sides of the fence," as the Crookston Diocesan Vicar General and as a the pastor and superintendent of Sacred Heart school.

"The diocese with the bishop, they don't ask a parish who they want as a priest," Foltz said. "In the Catholic Church, priests are assigned to the parishes. So I think that's where the rub comes from from parishioners. You know, they don't have any say in who they received as a pastor. And so, the crux of the matter is, well, then how can they be liable?"

'Prevention, justice, exposure'

While money isn't the ultimate goal in these cases, it is a big factor that comes up in discussions.

Depending on where money is allocated in the church, if a lawyer doesn't sue both the parish and the diocese, that could also limit the outcome of a case, Clohessy said.

A judge could say, "Oh shucks, who am I to figure out whether the bishop really controls this parish or that cemetery fund. If the bishop says he doesn't, I guess I have to take him at his word," Clohessy said.

The Catholic Church isn't the only institution dealing with child sexual abuse cases across the country. The Minneapolis Children's Theatre is facing lawsuits alleging abuse dating back to the 1970s, and the Boy Scouts of America has allegations from decades ago against it, too.

But with the Catholic Church, there's potentially more money at stake, and attorneys don't "make the same amount of money" in these other cases, Foltz said.

"It's just that with lawsuits and attorneys they get a big chunk of the money," Foltz said.

There are large settlements that can come out of these cases. Last fall, a St. Paul jury ordered the Diocese of Duluth to pay $4.9 million in damages to a victim. And Duluth and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis cited a trove of lawsuits when filing for bankruptcy.

But Finnegan, Clohessy and Foltz all agree that money isn't what these lawsuits and awareness about clergy sexual abuse is really about.

"In the end, it's all about helping people find healing and peace in their lives and move forward," Foltz said.

For the past couple of decades, the Catholic Church has made strides to create safe environments with intense background checks and trainings, Foltz said. And the Diocese of Crookston provides counseling to victims who want to come forward.

With the Minnesota Child Victims Act and the reporting about clergy sexual abuse across the country, more people are feeling comfortable to come forward for the first time, Foltz said.

"You have to understand, these lawsuits are about prevention, justice and exposure," Clohessy said. "Many victims feel as if it's their duty. They have a chance to expose wrongdoing to the courts and deter wrongdoing. And they can say, look, I can't undo what happened to me, but I can warn other people through this litigation, and I can deter other officials."



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.