A Minnesota clergy abuse lawsuit has broken new ground with a judge’s ruling that a public nuisance claim can be made against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The ruling by Ramsey District Judge John Van de North allows attorneys for the alleged victim of sexual abuse to examine all evidence pertaining to all clergy abuse across the Roman Catholic diocese and not be limited solely to the abuse committed by a particular priest.
Legal experts say it may be the first time a U.S. court has allowed a clergy abuse victim to pursue a public nuisance claim.
“This is something that lawyers across the nation will take notice of and follow,” said Charles Reid, a professor of civil and canon law at the University of St. Thomas.
The ruling is the latest in a high-profile lawsuit brought by a plaintiff identified as John Doe 1 against the Twin Cities archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona. The suit has already resulted in an unprecedented public release of names and church files on abusers.
In a decision written Tuesday, Van de North agreed with attorneys for the alleged victim, who have argued that the church created a public nuisance by moving known child sex offenders from parish to parish.
“Failing to disclose information about an accused priest is akin to, and conceivably more offensive and dangerous, than other acts that have been considered public nuisance,” Van de North wrote.
For example, harboring “worrisome dogs … or swearing in public have been found to be public nuisances,” he wrote. “The Court need look no further than Fathers Adamson and Curtis Wehmeyer as unfortunate examples of the horrendous consequences that can flow from intentional and misguided efforts to protect pedophile priests at the expense of minors.”
The ruling may have implications for church officials in dioceses across Minnesota. While judges in abuse lawsuits in three dioceses — Duluth, New Ulm and Crookston — have denied the nuisance claim, attorney Jeff Anderson said his law firm would now bring new cases that argue public nuisance.
The judge in a clergy abuse lawsuit against the Winona Diocese, which also claimed public nuisance, cleared its first legal hurdle in April.
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Anderson, who represents an alleged victim of the former priest Tom Adamson in the Ramsey County case, called the decision “unprecedented.” It allows his firm to continue extracting church evidence of abuse, up to the present, even though his client allegedly was abused nearly 40 years ago.
“It is a breakthrough in our ability to get full and complete disclosure of [clergy abuse] practices, documents and offenders,” said Anderson, whose case is scheduled for trial Nov. 3.
The archdiocese was not surprised by the ruling, said archdiocese attorney Tom Wieser, because Van de North had expressed his opinion on the claim at an earlier court hearing.
Wieser continues to believe the claim has no merit.
“The claim formulated here is far outside the parameters of most, if not all, public nuisance claims litigated in Minnesota,” said Wieser.
Weiser said the nuisance portion of the lawsuit has already been addressed, with the archdiocese’s release of the names of more than 30 priests who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children.
The nuisance claim has allowed Anderson’s office to obtain 50,000 pages of church documents related to how it has handled abusing priests, as well as sworn testimony from top church officials such as Archbishop John Nienstedt, former Archbishop Harry Flynn and former vicars general Kevin McDonough and Peter Laird.
Van de North also ruled that other negligence claims against the archdiocese could move forward, including negligent retention and supervision of priests.
The rulings come in response to a lawsuit that alleges that Adamson was a known abuser in the diocese of Winona before he was transferred to the archdiocese, where he allegedly abused the plaintiff in the mid-1970s at a St. Paul Park church.
That pattern of moving known offenders to other parishes where they could reoffend created an ongoing public nuisance, Van de North ruled.
“There is a question for trial on whether the Archdiocese and [Winona] Diocese for decades intentionally failed to exercise their common law duty of due care to the public by not disclosing information about credibly accused and accused pedophile priests,” wrote Van de North.
“A reasonable jury could find that the defendants maintained or permitted a condition which unreasonably endangered the safety, health, morals, comfort or repose of … the public.”
In another ruling Wednesday, Van de North addressed the question of what standards must be met in order to unseal the files of other priests accused of child sex abuse, names now known only by the church and the attorneys.
Van de North denied Anderson’s request to broaden the good cause standard for releasing the files. The judge said the allegations must be deemed “credible” and meet the state definition of child sexual abuse.
However, Van de North ruled that the burden of proof for keeping the files sealed should fall on the church.