Brothers Who Won Case against Green Bay Diocese Withdraw Bid for Punitive Damages

By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
May 23, 2012

Two brothers who won a landmark case this week against the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, for its role in their sexual abuse by a priest in the 1970s, withdrew their claim for punitive damages on Wednesday.

Todd and Troy Merryfield, who were awarded $700,000 by an Outagamie County jury on Monday, made the decision after Judge Nancy Krueger ruled that they could call no witnesses or submit no additional evidence showing what the archdiocese knew and when about their molester, the now-defrocked Father John Patrick Feeney.

The Merryfields are the first sex-abuse victims to successfully sue the Catholic Church in Wisconsin since 1995, when the state Supreme Court barred negligent supervision lawsuits against religious entities under the First Amendment. It ruled in 2007 that such cases could move forward if they allege fraud.

"It's tough. Most folks would be excited to win something like this. But it's a no-win," said Todd Merryfield of Port Washington, his voice breaking, as he spoke by telephone Wednesday from Appleton.

"It was never about the money," he said. "It was about doing the right thing."

The diocese's attorney did not return telephone calls seeking comment. But spokesman Deacon Ray DuBois said it would explore its legal options, including a possible appeal, in the coming weeks.

The diocese posted a statement on its website apologizing for the pain the Merryfields suffered and touting its current programs to keep children safe.

The statement said the judge dismissed all claims for punitive damages, making no mention of the Merryfields withdrawing their motion. The diocese said Monday after the verdict that it respected the jury's work but disagreed with its conclusions.

Feeney sexually assaulted the Merryfield brothers in 1978 at St. Nicholas Parish in Freedom when they were 12 and 14 years old, in one case putting his hand on one of the boy's groin in the confessional. He was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to 15 years in prison but was released last year.

In the civil lawsuit, the Merryfields accused the diocese of fraud, saying it knew Feeney was a danger to children and failed to inform parishioners. The diocese maintained it had no knowledge of Feeney's sexual abuse history before sending him to St. Nicholas.

The Merryfields were clearly frustrated Wednesday by the judge's refusal to allow into evidence a number of documents laying out Feeney's long history of abuse.

The brothers and the advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests began distributing those publicly after Wednesday's hearing.

They accuse the diocese of continuing to shield its abusive priests, saying it refuses to make public its files on more than 50 priests accused of sexual misconduct over the last several decades.

Attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who represented the Merryfields, said that they offered to drop their motion for punitive damages in return for the release of those documents, but that the diocese declined. They withdrew it anyway after the judge limited their evidence to the diocese's financial statements.

Anderson, a nationally prominent clergy sex abuse litigator who represents 350 claimants in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee bankruptcy, said he supported the Merryfields' decision.

"Their intent was to get the truth out, not to recover more money from the dioceses," he said.

"Their issue from the beginning was to protect the kids."


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