Jury awards $8 million to victim in Diocese of Duluth trial
By Tom Olsen
Duluth News Tribune
November 4, 2015
A St. Paul jury has ordered the Diocese of Duluth and a Catholic religious order to pay more than $8 million in damages to a man who was sexually abused by a priest in Itasca County more than 35 years ago.
A Ramsey County jury decided Wednesday that the diocese and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were negligent in their supervision of the Rev. J. Vincent FItzgerald, who abused the then-teenager, known in court documents as Doe 30, at a parish in Squaw Lake in 1978.
The landmark case was the first to be tried under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, a 2013 law that opened a window for sexual abuse lawsuits that would otherwise be barred by statutes of limitation.
It’s rare for a clergy sexual abuse case to actually reach a jury verdict. Mike Finnegan, an attorney for the plaintiff, said he believes it was the first in Minnesota in more than 20 years.
|Rev. J. Vincent Fitzgerald OMI
“This is affirmation of this courageous survivor coming forward and stepping up to take some of his power back,” Finnegan said shortly after the verdict was announced. “The size of this verdict will protect kids in the future and serves as a wake-up call for any organizations to make sure that they put the safety of kids first.”
The abuse allegations were not disputed by the diocese. Rather, defense attorneys argued to a jury that Fitzgerald was under the supervision of the Oblates, not the diocese, when the abuse occurred.
Susan Gaertner, the lead attorney for the diocese, reiterated that position in an interview with the News Tribune on Wednesday night.
“It is hard for the diocese to understand being held responsible today for a religious order priest’s actions 37 years ago that the diocese knew nothing about,” she said.
Gaertner said the diocese was reviewing its options and would not rule out an appeal.
The jury of three men and three women found that the diocese was 60 percent at fault for the abuse. The Oblates, the religious order to which Fitzgerald belonged, was found 40 percent responsible.
Barring a successful appeal or motion to reduce damages, the diocese would be on the hook for approximately $4.9 million of the award. The Oblates previously reached a confidential settlement with Doe 30, likely rendering their portion moot.
Verne Wagner, the northern Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the plaintiff “brave” for taking the case to trial.
“This was not about money for this person,” he said. “If it was, this person would’ve settled out of court and taken the sure thing. Instead, he wanted to make sure the church was publicly held accountable.”
The trial ran approximately 2½ weeks. The jury’s verdict was read in a St. Paul courtroom at about 2 p.m. Wednesday after less than a full day of deliberation.
The award was slightly less than the amount initially sought by the plaintiff’s attorneys. The damages cover pain, lost wages, future health care costs and loss of future earnings.
The victim was a 15-year-old altar boy from Lake Lillian, Minn., in 1978, according to attorneys. Raised in a devout Catholic family, he was brought to St. Catherine’s Church in Squaw Lake by Fitzgerald to serve as an alter boy for two weeks, during which time he was repeatedly sexually abused.
Gaertner argued to jurors that the diocese had no awareness of the abuse and could not have known that Fitzgerald posed a risk to children.
Fitzgerald, who worked at six parishes within the Diocese of Duluth between 1957 and 1983, died in 2009.
Finnegan said his client felt good about the result of the case, which has lingered in the court system since February 2014.
“Being able to stand up for himself, to stand up to the diocese and make sure this information is made public, he got a real sense of empowerment through that process,” Finnegan said. “He feels really good about what he was a part of here.”
Wagner said he was even more satisfied by the fact that a jury sympathized with Doe 30.
“It helps victims to realize that a jury of our peers also felt the anger and the frustration that we feel,” he said. “I think this verdict sends a clear message that juries are not going to stand still anymore and sympathize with the church.”
The diocese is facing at least five other active lawsuits stemming from child sexual abuse cases, according to Minnesota court records. The window to sue under the Child Victims Act remains open until May 2016.
Other branches of the church, including the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, have filed for bankruptcy in order to address an influx of abuse lawsuits.
Gaertner said Wednesday’s verdict places the Duluth diocese in a tough financial position, but stopped short of saying what actions it may take.
“The reality is that the diocese has limited resources,” she said. “One verdict of this magnitude makes it difficult to address the rest of the claims.”