Duluth priest's abuse trial likely a first under Child Victims Act

By Elizabeth Mohr
Pioneer Press
October 19, 2015

J. Vincent Fitzgerald

Jury selection began Monday in a clergy sex abuse lawsuit against the Diocese of Duluth, marking what attorneys say is the first such a case to go to trial under Minnesota's Child Victims Act.

The Child Victims Act, enacted by the Legislature in 2013, suspended the statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse who wished to sue, even if the abuse took place decades ago. The previous law prevented legal action after victims reached age 24. The new law allows such claims to be brought until May 2016.

Until now, many claims brought under the law have been settled before trial, or rolled into the bankruptcy case of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, or dismissed for other reasons.

In the case filed by "Doe 30," the Diocese of Duluth denies the allegations -- that it was aware that the Rev. James Vincent Fitzgerald had been previously accused and that it failed to adequately supervise him.

Initially, the lawsuit, filed in February 2014, also named as defendants the Diocese of New Ulm and Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Oblates order settled with the plaintiff, and a judge dismissed claims against the New Ulm diocese.

Fitzgerald was ordained in Illinois in 1950 as a Roman Catholic priest and was a religious order priest who belonged to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Fitzgerald worked on the Lake Traverse Reservation under the supervision of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., in the late 1960s.

(He was later named in a sexual abuse lawsuit claiming he molested a boy and girl during his time on the reservation. The suit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.) He worked in the Diocese of Duluth on and off from 1970 to 1983, according to Doe 30's suit. His timeline also includes work in the Diocese of Crookston and at least one other tribal assignment.

Doe 30 and his family were parishioners at St. Thomas More Parish in Lake Lillian, Minn., in the Diocese of New Ulm, where Fitzgerald worked for a short time in the 1970s.

In 1978, Doe 30 claims, Fitzgerald brought him to St. Catherine's Parish in Squaw Lake, Minn., in the Diocese of Duluth, where the priest molested the boy. Doe 30 was 13 years old at the time.

Doe 30's lawsuit claims the diocese did not implement safeguards that could have protected him or other children from predators, who church officials knew or should have known were working in the diocese.

In an effort to show how the diocese handled accused priests and what officials knew and when they knew it, Doe 30's attorneys requested that the diocese turn over documents related to all reports of abusive priests. The diocese has yet to turn over the documents.

On Monday, as prospective jurors filled out questionnaires, attorneys for both sides argued for and against release of the documents.

Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann ordered the diocese to turn over the documents immediately. He also issued a $1,200 sanction.

The documents are relevant, Guthmann said, because they will show "whether (the diocese is) employing anybody who's been accused of abuse, whether or not that abuse took place in the diocese (boundaries)."

He said withholding the requested documents violated his previous order, but he didn't think it was done in bad faith. Nevertheless, he said, "it needs to be rectified promptly."

Doe 30's attorneys -- led by Jeff Anderson, who has handled many sexual abuse cases over the years -- have said this case is the first under the Child Victims Act to go to trial.

But that's hard to say for sure, said Carla Ferrucci, executive director of the Minnesota Association for Justice.

"I do think its likely true that it's the only one going to trial, because the law hasn't been in effect for very long and the window of time to file these claims is short," Ferrucci said. "I think what's happened up until this case, they just settled."

A state court spokesman couldn't say for sure on Monday.



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