Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lawsuit can proceed
Ruling Against Catholic Diocese Follows Recent Precedent
Updated: Dec 09, 2010 4:30 AM
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Courts Keep Cases Going Beyond Statute of LimitationsBy Matt Smith

An Outagamie County judge ruled against the Green Bay Catholic Diocese in a child sex abuse case, and will allow a lawsuit to proceed.

In 2004, a jury convicted former priest John Patrick Feeney of sexually assaulting brothers Todd and Troy Merryfield while serving at a parish in Freedom in 1978. A judge later sentenced Feeney to prison.

During the criminal trial, the Merryfields discovered the diocese allegedly knew about other sexual assault allegations against Feeney.

In 2008, the Merryfields filed a lawsuit against the diocese, alleging fraudulent misrepresentation.

The diocese filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing the statute of limitations had passed and that the diocese didn't know Feeney was a danger to children.

Wednesday an Outagamie County judge ruled against both arguments and denied the diocese's motion to dismiss.

"Well obviously we're very happy that this can go forward. With the length of time that passed between the hearing and the ruling, we were getting a little nervous about things," Todd Merryfield reacted in a phone interview.

The diocese tells Action 2 News it plans to issue a statement Thursday about the judge's ruling.

As we discovered, cases like this in Wisconsin have only been moving forward for the past several years.

In this case, for example, the court says there is no way the Merryfield brothers could have known the diocese was possibly trying to cover anything up back in the late 1970s. That didn't come out until the 2004 trial.

This ruling and others like it aren't claiming victory. Rather, they're only allowing the cases to move forward when before they would have been stopped.

Two Wisconsin Supreme Court rulings in 2005 and 2007 involving the Milwaukee Archdiocese set precedence for victims to sue long after the statute of limitations would've run out.

"Only in the John Doe case did the Supreme Court finally open the door a crack in the cases of fraud where we can show, where we can demonstrate a pattern of fraud and cover-up," Merryfields attorney Jeff Anderson said.

Not only that, it extends well beyond the diocese -- like medical malpractice, for example, or companies withholding evidence until the statute of limitations would run out.

Now the court says that shouldn't be a barrier if there's enough evidence to prove wrongdoing.

"It affects people who have valid claims," legal analyst Tricia Nell said. "People who have been wronged can now, once they discover and are able to uncover evidence to bring a claim when before they would have been halted to do so just based upon the amount of years Wisconsin had put into place."

In the Merryfield case, their attorney says the next step hopefully is trial. There they will have to prove the diocese knew and covered up other allegations against Father Feeney.

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