A Ramsey County jury on Wednesday handed down one of the nation’s highest single monetary awards for a survivor of clergy sex abuse, signaling to the church that such crimes are being taken seriously, observers in the field said.
A jury of three women and three men found that the Diocese of Duluth and a Catholic religious order were responsible for the sexual abuse of a 15-year-old altar boy in 1978, and awarded the now 52-year-old survivor $8.1 million for past and future damages and loss earnings.
“This is one of the largest verdicts in the country,” said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University in New York and a national expert on clergy abuse.
The vast majority of cases settle out of court, with an average settlement of about $1 million to $1.3 million, she said.
The verdict is the first for a trial under Minnesota’s Child Victims Act. The 2013 law allowed older claims of child sex abuse barred from criminal prosecution due to statutes of limitations to be aired in civil court.
A man identified in court records as Doe 30 sued the diocese in Ramsey County, alleging that it failed to protect him from the Rev. James Vincent Fitzgerald, that it failed to supervise the priest and that it should have known that he was dangerous.
Fitzgerald, who is deceased, took the boy on a trip across the state in 1978 and sexually assaulted him for two weeks while working in a Diocese of Duluth parish. Fitzgerald was a priest with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate religious order.
Jurors Wednesday found that the diocese was 60 percent responsible and the Oblates was 40 percent responsible for the negligent supervision of Fitzgerald, and that it was a “direct cause” of Doe 30’s abuse.
Doe 30’s attorney, Jeff Anderson, had asked jurors in his closing arguments Tuesday to find the diocese 90 percent responsible and the Oblates 10 percent responsible. Wednesday, he said that he supported the jurors’ findings.
“Through this jury’s decision, there is now hope … and there has been great healing,” he said.
‘Voice of the people’
Jurors began deliberating shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday, and returned their verdict about 2 p.m. Wednesday. The Oblates were originally named in the lawsuit, but were later dismissed by a judge’s order.
“I think, clearly, the finding of the jury … reflects that they really appreciate fully the magnitude of both the harm done here and the betrayal of trust. …” Anderson said. “It really has important, far-reaching implication. …”
Terence McKiernan, president of the Boston-area watchdog group, Bishop Accountability, said that the largest jury award he could immediately recall was $11.5 million given several years ago to two abuse survivors in New York. The closest jury awards or settlements tend to hover in the $5 million range, he said.
“This is, in a way, the voice of the people,” McKiernan said of Wednesday’s verdict. “This is an indication of how the people feel about this kind of crime.
“One of the things that the money means is that this was truly horrible, and this poor man really deserves significant compensation for what he’s suffered and what it’s done to his life.”
Anderson asked jurors to award his client a little more than $11 million, and said they could calculate an amount of their own. But he also cautioned them not to “punish” the diocese by awarding an “outrageous” sum.
Overly large awards may carry some symbolism, but haven’t proved successful. In 1997, McKiernan said, a jury awarded 11 plaintiffs in a Texas case $119.6 million. That award was eventually knocked down to $30.9 million.
Anderson said Wednesday that he expected the diocese to fight the verdict and possibly ask for a reduction or elimination of the monetary award.
Diocese attorney Susan Gaertner declined to comment after the verdict was read.
Gaertner told jurors in her closing arguments Tuesday that the diocese bore no responsibility because Fitzgerald’s history of inappropriate behavior was known to the Oblates, and was not communicated to the diocese. She also argued that he was an employee of the Oblates.
“[The Oblates] was pulling the strings and making the plans for the ministry of J. Vincent Fitzgerald,” Gaertner told jurors.
Anderson argued, and advocates agree, that bishops are ultimately responsible for protecting children from predatory priests.
“We hope the wisdom of this jury and the courage of this victim will prod others who are victims of sexual violence to come forward, seek justice, prevent crimes and expose those who commit and conceal heinous abuse against children,” said a statement from David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “The bottom line is that every bishop is responsible for the safety of every Catholic kid from every Catholic pedophile. …”
Staff writer Jean Hopfensperger contributed to this report.