Friday, July 16, 2010

Victims must show Green Bay Catholic diocese knew of prior sex abuse

Victims must show Green Bay Catholic diocese knew of prior sex abuse
Civil case hinges on whether attorneys can prove previous abuse
By John Lee • Gannett Wisconsin Media • July 16, 2010
Attorneys for two boys molested by a Roman Catholic priest must show proof the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay knew of prior abuse for the civil case to proceed, a judge said Thursday.

Outagamie County Judge Nancy Krueger said attorneys for Todd D. and Troy J. Merryfield must show proof of sexual abuse of children, not just that the diocese's knowledge was limited to "reasonable inferences" or "sexual impulses."
Krueger laid down those guidelines Thursday in a hearing on diocese motions to dismiss the case, and to prohibit punitive damages if the case proceeds. She did not set a date for ruling on the motions.
John Feeney, a former priest, abused the Merryfields in 1978 when they were 12 and 14, and other boys at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Freedom. Feeney is serving a 15-year prison sentence for sexual abuse convictions.
Based on a 2007 state Supreme Court decision, victims of clergy abuse can sue under the fraud statutes outside the normal six-year statute of limitations. Victims must prove they were unaware of the fraud until a later date when it was discovered.
The Merryfields say the diocese failed to inform St. Nicholas Catholic Church parishioners of Feeney's past, including his church-ordered sexual abuse counseling.
Church attorney Patrick Brennan said Merryfields' attorneys have been investigating, taking depositions and filing affidavits for more than two years, adding no proof exists Feeney had a history of sexual abuse before 1978.
Evidence they have uncovered does not meet standards for admissibility.
"I don't believe all the incidents cited by the plaintiffs meet that criteria," Brennan said. "We don't think there are any facts showing any prior incidents of molestation."
He added the Merryfields and their family did not adequately seek relief before the normal six-year statute of limitations expired.
Rumors and reports that Feeney showered with children or swam with them in the nude also would not be admissible, he said.
The Merryfields' lawyers disagree, citing allegations and reports forwarded to the diocese by other priests that date to the early 1970s.
Also, a 1974 letter from a diocese board said Feeney was "working under risk," said Michael Finnegan, one of Merryfield's attorneys. A 1983 memo from the diocese shows what officials knew prior to 1978, he said.
"We are trying to use that as the state of mind of the diocese — what they knew and what they heard," Finnegan said. "I believe there is enough evidence here."
Finnegan said he doesn't have to prove Feeney actually abused anyone, just the diocese knew he had the potential do it.

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