Can a Roman Catholic Bishop and His Diocese Be Held Liable for Negligence If Someone Is Injured Because the Bishop Failed to Act on Information He Obtained from One of His Priests in the Confessional?
May 10, 1983
That thorny question is at issue in a Duluth, Minn., lawsuit -- apparently the first of its kind -- in which damages are being sought from a diocese whose priest previously pleaded guilty to fourth-degree sexual misconduct after being charged with a September 1980 homosexual assault on a 15-year-old boy. The suit, which seeks in excess of $50,000 each in actual and punitive damages, was filed by the youth, now 18, and his parents, The National Law Journal
reports in its May 16 edition.
The suit charges that officials of the Diocese of Duluth were negligent because they allegedly were aware of past homosexual contact between the priest and juveniles but did not take steps to
protect youths from similar incidents, said the family's attorney, Dennis J. Korman of Cloquet, Minn.
Defendants named in the suit are a former Cloquet priest, Dennis Puhl, his parish, St. Casimir's Catholic Church, the Diocese of
Duluth and Bishop Paul Anderson.
Precisely what the diocese knew about the priest's past homosexual conduct is shrouded in the priest-penitent privilege.
The priest has admitted in a deposition in the civil case against him that he had homosexual contact with several youths in 1977 while
he was co-pastor of a parish in Virginia, Minn., and that he had received treatment for sexual problems at that time, according to Mr.
Korman. But he claimed that conversations about his problem with Bishop Anderson and his co-pastor in Virginia were protected by the
priest-penitent privilege because they occurred in a confessional setting.
The bishop, according to Mr. Korman, has denied ever having any such conversations, but Mr. Korman believes that this discrepancy is
due to the canon law requirement that a confessor cannot reveal -- or act on -- any information learned during confession.
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