More Church Documents Ordered Released in Ramsey County Clergy Sex Abuse Trial
By Chao Xiong
October 19, 2015
A judge ordered the Diocese of Duluth on Monday to produce more priest files as it prepared to defend itself in a civil trial involving alleged clergy sex abuse.
The diocese failed to abide by a January court order to turn over all documents about alleged abuse it possessed before 1978, Ramsey County District Court Judge John Guthmann said Monday.
“I do not think this was in bad faith,” the judge said, “but it needs to be rectified.”
Guthmann also sanctioned the diocese $1,250 for failing to turn over all of the necessary documents to attorneys Jeff Anderson, Mike Finnegan and Elin Lindstrom. The three attorneys are representing a former altar boy, named Doe 30 in the case, who is suing the diocese.
The case is significant because it is the first lawsuit under the Minnesota Child Victims Act to go to trial. That 2013 law has allowed older claims of child sex abuse previously barred by statutes of limitations to have their day in court.
Doe 30 alleges that the Rev. James Vincent Fitzgerald, who is dead, sexually abused him in the 1970s when he was 13.
Former Ramsey County attorney Susan Gaertner, who is representing the diocese, said her team “made a good-faith effort” to abide by Guthmann’s court order to divulge all relevant documents, which amounted to thousands of pages.
“They have more than we have,” Gaertner said of Finnegan’s team.
Finnegan noted that his team had to obtain a 1966 letter from an author that should have instead been produced by the diocese. The letter documented the transfer of a predatory priest, Father Bernard Bissonnette, and the practice of allowing such priests to “rehabilitate themselves in the Diocese of Duluth,” according to a motion filed by Finnegan.
Gaertner said that language in the judge’s order appeared to make the scope of the discovery narrower.
Guthmann said Monday, the first day of trial, that his order required the disclosure of any allegation the diocese was aware of, not just allegations made against its direct employees.
The judge ordered the diocese to produce documents about Bissonnette by 9 a.m. Tuesday, and all other allegations within two days.
“We expect it to be a handful of files,” Gaertner later said.
The diocese is not challenging Doe 30’s claims of sexual abuse as he has outlined them in a deposition for the trial. It is challenging the assertion that Fitzgerald was its employee, that his predatory behavior was foreseeable and that the diocese was or should have been aware of his previous conduct.
The trial resumes Tuesday with jury selection.