Diocese Asks for New Trial in Feeney Case
By Jim Collar
June 14, 2012
Attorneys for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Green Bay are asking for a new trial in the Outagamie County civil lawsuit won by two childhood victims of clergy sex abuse based on new information they say shows a juror was biased.
A jury last month awarded brothers Todd and Troy Merryfield a total of $700,000 in the fraud case. The brothers claimed the diocese fraudulently misrepresented the safety of former priest John Feeney when it installed him as pastor at Freedom’s St. Nicholas Church in the 1970s.
Feeney molested the boys, then ages 12 and 14, in 1978. He was sentenced to prison for the sexual assaults in 2004.
Attorneys for the diocese filed a motion for a new trial last week citing a juror’s “incorrect responses” on a questionnaire provided in advance of the trial and “lack of candor” during and after the May 14 jury selection process.
The responses “demonstrate (the juror’s) obvious bias and deprived the diocese of its constitutional right to an impartial jury,” the brief says.
John Peterson, attorney for Troy Merryfield, said the diocese’s attempt to undo the verdict shows it’s “running out of options.”
The juror in question declined comment.
Another juror raised the red flag, telling the court about concerns over comments the juror in question made.
Neither the diocese’s motion nor the minutes of a June 4 hearing on the issue held in Krueger’s chambers specify the nature of information that gave rise to the diocese’s bias claim.
The juror accused of bias and two other jurors were interviewed at the hearing.
Peterson said the concerns arose from a parking lot conversation following the trial’s conclusion. The juror in question mentioned a family member had attended St. Therese School in Appleton during the period Feeney was assigned to the church, and wondered aloud about the family member’s experiences with Feeney.
“She certainly didn’t think she was biased,” Peterson said.
Patrick Brennan, lead attorney for the diocese, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
“The newly disclosed information regarding (the juror) requires the court to order a new trial in the interest of justice,” the brief says.
On Wednesday, Judge Nancy Krueger scheduled a June 26 hearing on the diocese’s motion.
The Merryfields’ case against the diocese unfolded over a four-year period. They claimed the diocese was aware Feeney had a history of child sex abuse when they moved him to the Freedom parish. The diocese denied having that knowledge before the boys were assaulted.
Krueger had 90 potential jurors on hand during jury selection, many more than typically called for jury selection.
The juror accused of bias by the diocese answered questions posed by attorneys to the panel during selection, a process called voir dire.
The juror acknowledged that she had shopped at Sharon Merryfield’s business and vaguely knew her.The juror also answered questions about her role on a jury in a different civil case, a transcript shows.
Jurors deliberated for about five hours before returning the verdict one week after the trial began. They awarded $475,000 to Troy Merryfield and $225,000 to Todd Merryfield.
Troy Merryfield sought $1.8 million while his brother asked for $900,000.
The Merryfields dropped their request for punitive damages because they said the case was about justice, not money.
— Jim Collar: 920-993-1000, ext. 216, or email@example.com