Priest Who Served in River Falls and Somerset at Center of Lawsuit against Bishop Fliss

By Ron Brochu
River Falls Journal
November 24, 2006

A priest who formerly served at St. Anne's parish in Somerset parish is at center of a lawsuit being filed against the Archbishop of the Superior Diocese.

Bishop Raphael Fliss is being sued in Minnesota for negligence by a plaintiff who contends he did not report incidents of alleged sexual abuse committed by Fr. Edward Beutner, formerly employed by the Superior Diocese.

Beutner served in River Falls from 1973-74 and during 2002 at the St. Thomas More Newman Center, just off the University of River Falls campus.

The civil complaint was filed by "John Doe 113," who says he was sexually abused in Minnesota by Beutner, a now-retired priest who previously served the diocese as a teacher and is also named as a defendant.

"He and three others were abused as teens. They all suffered in silence until they met recently" at a reunion, said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who represents the unnamed defendant.

Beutner has never been charged with a crime in Wisconsin, according to the state's Circuit Court Access Web page, and there is no formal evidence to substantiate their allegations.

Beutner could not be located to obtain his comment. No complaint about Beutner has been filed in Douglas County since 1990, said Superior Police Department Capt. Charles LaGesse.

When recently reunited, the men discussed their alleged experiences with Beutner and decided they should share their concerns with Fliss. About five months ago, they met with the bishop and Fr. Phillip Heslin, a diocese spokesman, Anderson said.

Fliss and Heslin "listened intently until they learned how long ago this happened. Then the bishop said it was beyond the statute of limitations," Anderson said. But that was not their point, the attorney explained.

Based on their experiences, the men wanted local Catholic officials to check on Beutner's past and current assignments to ensure parishioners were safe.

Fliss and Heslin promised to get back to the men, but they never did, Anderson said.

The lawsuit says the defendants "...continue to attempt to cover up Beutner's abuse of children." Further, it says Fliss "failed to exercise ordinary care in supervising Beutner in his work and failed to prevent the foreseeable misconduct of Beutner from causing harm to others."

The bishop was unavailable for comment Wednesday morning, according to a diocese secretary, as was Heslin, who was recovering from surgery.

Because diocese officials had not received a copy of the lawsuit, it's unlikely they will issue a public response today, she said.

Beutner was assigned to Cathedral of Christ the King in Superior from 1966-68 and Holy Assumption Church in Superior from 1975-78.

In addition to his posts in Somerset and River Falls, he also held assignments in Cameron, Moquah, and Woodruff in Wisconsin, according to the civil complaint.

This was not the first time diocese officials have received a complaint about Beutner. A Menomonie woman raised similar concerns four years ago.

Connie Ross told Fliss at the 2002 National Bishops' Conference that she was sexually abused by Beutner and Fr. Jim Jackson. Ross followed her conversation with a Dec. 23, 2002, letter to the Bishop in which she asked the diocese to reimburse her for the costs of professional psychological therapy.

That letter was followed on April 9, 2002, by one sent to Fliss by her attorney, also Jeffrey R. Anderson.

In it, Anderson alleged Ross was sexually abused by Beutner at age 16 and Jackson at age 18.

He asked to know the status of each priest, sought any information pertaining to sexual misconduct by either individual and asked what actions the diocese intended to take to protect children or vulnerable adults from exploitation.

"There was no followup," Ross said in an interview Wednesday morning, with no communication ever received in return.

She described Beutner has a "cool" priest who gave teens rides in his Mazda RX7. Unlike most priests, he owned his own house, located in Cameron, and often invited youth there, where alcohol was part of the social gatherings.

"Ed invited kids to his house all the time. There was this prestige about being one of Ed's friends," Ross said.

She contends her abuse occurred at a "Teens Encounter Christ" gathering in Medford.

He didn't force himself on teens, Ross said, but created private situations with alcohol that could raise doubt about whether teens were being abused or were consentual participants.

When the alleged incidents occurred two decades ago, she said, adults were unaware of clergy abuse and didn't believe priests were capable of such assaults.

Another priest, she said, once inappropriately touched her while they were swimming beneath a river directly in front of her parents.

"I've chosen to just leave (the Catholic church) because I can't tolerate the hypocrisy of it," she said.

Today's lawsuit is important because similar litigation can't be filed in Wisconsin, Anderson said. Wisconsin case law protects clergy and churches, but because the alleged assault was said to have occurred in Minnesota, the litigation could be filed there.

"There are so many people in Superior who have been abused, and there's nothing that can be done about it because Wisconsin law is medieval," Anderson said.

Ron Bronchu is the Editor of the Superior Daily Telegram which is owned by Forum Communications, the parent company of the RiverTown Newspaper Group.


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