Church Argues for New Trial or Dismissal in Priest Sex Abuse Case
By Jim Collar
July 17, 2012
|Todd Merryfield (center) listens Tuesday in Appleton during a post-verdict motion hearing in Outagamie County Judge Nancy Krueger's courtroom on the Catholic Diocese's challenge to the $700,000 award given to brothers Todd and Troy Merryfield.|
APPLETON — A judge could rule as soon as today on whether to order a retrial in the civil fraud verdict against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, which claims a juror was biased against the church.
Outagamie County Judge Nancy Krueger heard a variety of arguments Tuesday from the diocese as it tries to overturn a $700,000 jury award given in May to two childhood victims of clergy sexual abuse. Brothers Todd and Troy Merryfield filed the lawsuit in 2008.
A jury deliberated for about five hours in May before returning a verdict in the Merryfields' favor. The diocese is asking for the civil fraud case to be dismissed, the jury's findings to be overturned or a new trial.
Krueger told attorneys she planned to rule on the bias issue in the next two days. She didn't set a timetable for rulings on the remaining diocesan arguments.
The brothers claimed the diocese knew the Rev. John Feeney had a history of sexual misconduct when it installed him as a priest at Freedom's St. Nicholas Church and falsely portrayed him as safe even though church officials knew he was a danger to children.
The brothers, then 12 and 14, were molested by Feeney in 1978.
Patrick Brennan, attorney for the diocese, said a retrial is necessary after some jurors who heard the case brought their concerns to the court about what they perceived as bias by another juror.
The juror mentioned to peers that a family member had attended St. Therese School in Appleton during the period Feeney was assigned to the church. She questioned whether he could have been a victim of abuse. The juror was also friends with a cousin of the Merryfields' mother.
"The jurors were astounded, dismayed, by what they heard," Brennan said.
Krueger and attorneys representing both sides questioned the juror last month. Brennan said comments she made during the interview, including, "I should have just shut my mouth," demonstrated her bias.
Brennan said the juror "had a past that she didn't want to disclose." He said an alternate juror could have been used if the woman had brought her concerns to Krueger's attention.
John Peterson, an attorney for the brothers, disagreed. He said the juror has no information to suggest her relative was a victim of Feeney. Peterson said the juror didn't believe she had a conflict of interest and said she could serve in a fair and unbiased manner.
"We always have to rely on the word of the jurors when it comes to the question of bias," Peterson said.
Because proving fraud required the brothers to show Feeney molested others before they were assaulted, Krueger asked Peterson whether the juror's memories dating back to the 1950s could have influenced her findings. Peterson replied that the juror didn't think it interfered with her judgment.
The diocese also argues the jury's award was excessive. Its attorneys say the brothers failed to present sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict. They also argue the court is constitutionally barred from reading any meaning into Feeney's assignment to a pastoral role.
Additionally, the diocese is asking Krueger to toss the case, claiming unreasonable delays in filing the case left it unable to defend itself due to the deaths of key witnesses.
Brennan and Deacon Timothy Reilly declined comment following the hearing.
Troy Merryfield, a Virginia resident, didn't attend Tuesday's hearing.
Todd Merryfield expressed frustration.
"The jury agreed with us and (church officials are) showing their true colors today," he said. "They have no intention of taking responsibility."
The Merryfields declined to seek punitive damages after winning the fraud verdict, saying the case was about exposing the truth, not money.