Lawyers Seek Decades-old Church Records on Late St. Paul Priest Linked to Sex Abuse Scandals

By Marino Eccher
Insurance News Net
July 31, 2014

-Records of what the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis knew about sexual misconduct within its ranks decades ago are critical to show a pattern of negligence, attorneys suing the church argued Wednesday.

But the archdiocese said those requests go beyond the scope of what the plaintiffs are entitled to.

The arguments before a Ramsey County district judge concerned a lawsuit about the late Rev. Thomas S. Stitts.

The lawsuit alleges abuse inflicted by Stitts occurred at St. Leo the Great Church in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul when the plaintiff, an altar boy, was about 14.

Other lawsuits claim that Stitts sexually abused boys in the 1960s and 1970s and that the church should have known about it and done more to prevent it.

Stitts died of cancer in 1985 at age 50.

The plaintiffs, represented by Patrick Noaker and Craig Vernon, argued that a trove of information -- including Stitts' health insurance and retirement records, allegations made against other clergy from 1965 to the present, warnings issued to the community about priest conduct and guidelines on priest contact with children -- is key to demonstrating that the archdiocese didn't adequately address abuse as it occurred.

John Gunderson, an attorney for the archdiocese, said that's a sprawling and unreasonable request. He cited, as an example, a request for information about any complaints about misconduct with a minor at any time.

In some cases, he said, the lack of a specified time frame means the plaintiff is seeking more than 150 years' worth of records.

"I'm at a loss as to how to comply with that request," he said.

The archdiocese has turned over everything it has on Stitts, he said. He also said no one who currently works for the organization can be expected to talk about policies from Stitts' era.

He also said the archdiocese had no "secret" files it was holding back in the case. The plaintiffs had asked for any such files. Noaker said he'd take Gunderson's word for it and drop the request.

The other requested records, Noaker said, would provide broader context about what the church knew or should have known about Stitts. The plaintiffs need them to prove "that it was foreseeable that Father Stitts could commit abuse," he said.

"The fact that the archdiocese cannot put their arms around the volume of records they have about priests abusing children is not a reason for them not to have to produce it in discovery," Noaker said.

Judge John Van de North said he would likely trim the discovery requirements to focus more on clergy and children.

He said he would also consider tightening the time frame -- perhaps as far back as 1965 for some issues and from about 1970 to 1985 for others, unless there was a compelling reason to do otherwise.

He asked Noaker to submit a proposed order for discovery "that would pare down to what you really want."

The archdiocese will submit its own arguments in response.

The next round of filings in the cases is due Aug. 13, with responses due the following week.

Marino Eccher can be reached at 651-228-5421.

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