Lawsuit Accuses Diocese of Fraud

By David Unze
St Cloud Times
January 13, 2009

A lawsuit filed Monday in Stearns County District Court accuses the Diocese of St. Cloud of fraud for not telling parishioners about allegations of sexual abuse against one of its priests.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of an unidentified plaintiff, alleges that the diocese committed fraud for not disclosing to parishioners that James Thoennes had been accused of abusing children. The lawsuit accuses the diocese of moving Thoennes from parish to parish without notifying parishioners of previous complaints against Thoennes.

The plaintiff was abused by Thoennes from 1982-1984, according to the lawsuit, nearly 20 years after allegations of sexual abuse against Thoennes first came to the attention of the diocese.

The lawsuit names only the diocese and not Thoennes as defendant and makes two claims of fraud but no claims of personal injury, sexual battery or negligence.

The statute of limitations likely would bar the latter claims.

But because the victim in the case filed Monday didn't learn until last year what the diocese knew in the 1960s about Thoennes, he can still file a claim without the diocese seeking dismissal by the statute of limitations, said Patrick Noaker, the attorney representing the plaintiff.

Bishop John F. Kinney issued a statement Monday that didn't address the facts of the case and said a response would be coming after the diocese has time to review the lawsuit.

"I am saddened by these allegations. As in the past, I want to reaffirm my commitment to provide for the safety of children and young people in the church," Kinney's statement read. "My prayers remain with all those who are affected by this situation. I again want to encourage anyone who has been abused to come forward and contact one of the Diocesan Victims Advocates or civil authorities."

Thoennes hasn't been involved in active ministry since 1994, Kinney wrote, and Thoennes had his faculties as a priest suspended in 2002.

The allegations against the plaintiff who sued Monday are from when Thoennes was a pastor at St. Leonard's parish in Pelican Rapids. The victim was described as a Vietnamese boy whose immigration Thoennes sponsored.

The lawsuit accuses the diocese of knowing that Thoennes sponsored the immigration of the boy and his brother and that both lived with Thoennes.

It also accuses the diocese of knowing more than 15 years earlier of at least two allegations of sexual abuse by Thoennes against boys when Thoennes was associate pastor at St. Anthony of Padua in St. Cloud.

"By assigning Fr. Thoennes to a Defendant Diocese parish, without warning parish families about Fr. Thoennes' prior acts of sexual misconduct, the Defendant Diocese made both implicit and explicit representations to the parish and the public that Fr. Thoennes was safe to perform his assigned duties, especially those duties that required him to have contact with children."

The statute of limitations on fraud cases begins to run when a potential victim discovers that fraud has occurred, Noaker said.

The statute of limitations in civil cases is the time in which a victim must file a claim.

Expiration of the statute of limitations has barred many claims of decades-old abuse in personal-injury and sexual-battery cases.

This case is different, Noaker said, because it involves a fraud claim and the plaintiff only recently learned of what the diocese knew about Thoennes in the 1960s. Thoennes was a defendant in a lawsuit in 2002 by a former student at St. Anthony's. At the time, it was the second lawsuit against Thoennes for sexual abuse of boys.

In the first lawsuit, Thoennes admitted in a deposition to abusing at least four young people.

Some of the abuse allegations were at least partially recanted by at least one of the victims, and criminal charges never were filed.


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