Lawsuit Claims Green Bay Diocese Knew Of, Covered up Abuse: Sex Assault by Catholic Priest Could Have Been Avoided, Suit Says

By Andy Nelesen
Green Bay Press-Gazette
January 3, 2008

The Catholic Diocese of Green Bay covered up years of sexual abuse by now-defrocked and imprisoned John Patrick Feeney and lied to parishioners about what they knew about previous incidents of molestation, a lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.

The suit, filed in Outagamie County Circuit Court, seeks unspecified damages for Troy and Todd Merryfield, two brothers originally from Freedom who attended St. Nicholas Church in the late 1970s.

The men, complainants in the 2002 criminal case that sent Feeney, a former priest, to prison for 15 years, said they decided to file a civil lawsuit after learning the diocese knew about Feeney's assaults and failed to take action to protect others.

"The overwhelming reason for us to bring this action now is really that the diocese has never really come to grips or taken responsibility for what has occurred in the past," said Todd Merryfield, now 43.

"Frankly it could be continuing right now. The veil of secrecy about this is almost stunning."

"It's gotta stop," said Troy Merryfield, now 42. "And they haven't gotten the idea that it has to stop."

A state Supreme Court decision in July — in an unrelated priest abuse civil lawsuit that relaxed the time limits to file lawsuits — cleared the way for the Merryfields' legal action.

Their suit filed Wednesday alleges that they would not have been molested if they or their parents knew that Feeney had molested other children before being placed at St. Nicholas and that he was a danger to children.

The suit claims the diocese committed fraud by affirmatively representing to Todd and Troy Merryfield and their family that Feeney did not have a history of molesting children, claiming that the diocese did not know Feeney had a history of molesting children or that he was a danger.

"It's fraud because the bishop and his successors all lied and deceived this family, the public, the police and the parishioners," said attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who is representing the Merryfields.

"They withheld from them the information that they knew that Father Feeney was a child molester. They had known he was a molester since the early '60s, and they allowed him to continue in 20 different parishes in the communities just in Wisconsin."

Deacon Tim Reilly, diocesan director of administration, said the diocese has taken measures to protect parishioners and educate staff and priests about abuse issues. But he stopped short of commenting on the Merryfields' allegations of coverup and fraud.

"That is what the basis of the lawsuit is contending and that is what we will defend ourselves against, but we need to do that defense within the context of the court of law and not standing outside here," Reilly said, standing on the diocese office's steps Wednesday.

"Those are elements of the lawsuit that we're going to have to respond to through the legal system," he said.

The diocese has 45 days to respond to the lawsuit.

The suit also claims that the diocese intentionally kept information about Feeney secret and it was negligent by not providing adequate warning about Feeney and his history.

"If the diocese would have reported Feeney to law enforcement when they first got the report in the early '60s — and done what they should have done under the law in common decency — these two kids, now men, never would have been abused, and countless others' lives would have never been ruined or wounded," Anderson said.

The suit includes a July 1974 letter from a doctor to Feeney establishing that Feeney's controls over sexual impulses may fail and cause indiscretions when he is under stress. The letter, from Dr. Thomas Kelley, recommends psychotherapy and treatment by a psychiatrist.

It also states it is expected that it will be forwarded to Bishop Aloysius Wycislo. A follow-up letter from Feeney to the bishop explains the development and apologizes to the bishop for reports of more complaints about Feeney.

The Merryfields said they have felt the pain of their abuse throughout their lives. Todd was 12 when he was molested while at St. Nicholas Church in 1978; Troy was 12 when he was molested by Feeney at home that same year, according to the suit.

"It sits burning," said Todd Merryfield. "I was able to get it pigeon-holed back in my head, but you never forget it. It's always there.

"You may not have seen it if you had met me on the street. But it's there every day. Every day it burns."

Troy Merryfield said he feels a broader impact.

"I have problem with relationships," he said. "I've been to a marriage counseling. I've been on medication for depression and anxiety for many years. Whether this has anything to do with this, I don't know, but I certainly think it has."

Both feel betrayed by the church. Neither are Catholics anymore.

"When we saw the number of victims out there, it was like whoa," Todd Merryfield said. "For someone to be able to do that, over that period of time, to that many kids it takes your breath away how extensive the coverup is.

"I hope they would take responsibility for their actions and demonstrate to the public that they are taking actions to make sure that this doesn't happen again. Frankly after the criminal proceedings and up until now, it's been the sound of crickets. There's nothing coming out."

Also Wednesday, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests renewed its call for the Green Bay diocese to release the names of 51 clergy who have been the subject of credible claims of abuse.

The letter also calls for the diocese to fight the lawsuit on its merits rather than attack it on legal technicalities.

"As leaders of the Green Bay diocese, you can demonstrate your concern for public safety and for the children of Northeastern Wisconsin by immediately releasing the names and locations of the 51 clergy sex offenders known by church officials in Green Bay to have sexually assaulted children and minors," said SNAP Midwest Director Peter Isely in the letter to Timothy Dolan, apostolic administrator of Green Bay and archbishop of Milwaukee.

"Digging up technicalities, deploying endless delays, arguing that fraud and child abuse don't legally matter if court filing deadlines are not met: Is this really the kind of moral defense of their church that Catholics want and deserve?" Isely wrote.

The support group drafted the letter to Dolan, who is serving until a new bishop is appointed. SNAP's request is not part of the Merryfields' lawsuit. From Green Bay bishop, David Zubik, now bishop in Pittsburgh, would not release the names during his tenure that ended in September.

"Bishop Zubik declined to release those names and that's where that situation sits probably until the new bishop is installed," Reilly said Wednesday. "All of the names on that list have been turned over to the legal authorities. There is no allegation that has been made against a priest or deacon that has not been turned over to the civil authorities."


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