Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Minnesota Court of Appeals dismisses fraud lawsuit by four women against New Ulm Diocese

Minnesota Court of Appeals dismisses fraud lawsuit by four women against New Ulm Diocese
Court finds diocese didn't have obligation to reveal facts
By Emily Gurnon
Posted: 09/01/2010 12:01:00 AM CDT

Four women who alleged that a now-dead priest sexually abused them as children had their lawsuit thrown out by the state Court of Appeals on Tuesday.

The court ruled that the New Ulm Diocese's silence on the Rev. David Roney's abusive behavior did not constitute fraud because the diocese did not "suppress" facts that it was under a legal obligation to disclose, a three-judge panel wrote.

There may be circumstances where a legal obligation to disclose the information existed, but the plaintiffs did not allege that, the court wrote.

"(The) appellants do not assert that respondents had a duty to disclose Father Roney's sexual-abuse history," Judge Michelle Larkin wrote for the panel.

William Mitchell College of Law professor Michael Steenson said, "Our (state) precedent dictates that there is no duty to disclose under these circumstances." He added that "moral obligations and legal obligations are not the same."

Larkin wrote, "In this case, there is no evidence that respondents (the New Ulm Diocese) made affirmative misrepresentations separate and distinct from their nondisclosure or took active steps to conceal the abuse. The women have too broadly stated their fraud theory."

The opinion said that, "while we are sympathetic to victims of sexual abuse and recognize that appellants' claim involves allegations of inexcusable child abuse perpetrated by an adult in a position of trust, we are bound to follow existing law."

The judges agreed with the diocese that, had the court ruled the other way, it would "greatly expand the scope of potential liability for fraud claims."
The decision could affect other cases that allege fraud against dioceses that employed priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Mike Finnegan of Jeff Anderson & Associates, who represented the plaintiffs, said the ruling is not good for the women.

"This decision is definitely sad for these four women, and my heart goes out to them that, at least as of right now, we don't have any way to go forward," Finnegan said. "But the decision, overall, leaves a lot of hope for all the other survivors who have been lied to and misled, not only by the diocese here, but also by other organizations that are supposed to protect kids."

Finnegan noted that the decision favored the women's claim that they filed their lawsuit within the statute of limitations.

"If you're deceived or lied to and you recently learned about that, you may have the ability to seek justice," he said.

Roney served at two parishes in the 1960s and 1970s: St. Francis in Benson and St. Mary's in Willmar.

The women, who were identified as Jane Does 43C, 43E, 43F and 43G, alleged that they were sexually abused by Roney at those churches. Parents and one plaintiff herself, when she was an adult, complained to church officials, but Roney was reassigned.

He died in 2003 at the Diocese of New Ulm's mission in Guatemala.

After Roney died, the diocese publicly acknowledged that he had sexually abused children.

Msgr. Douglas Grams of the diocese said in a statement Tuesday that the court "made the right decision in determining that there was no basis for plaintiffs to make any claim of fraud against the diocese of New Ulm."

He added that the diocese "in no way" condones sexual abuse and expresses deep sympathies for any victims.

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