Ruling opens door to revisit sex-abuse case

  • Article by: LORA PABST and ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: June 27, 2011 - 10:25 PM

Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed an earlier decision dismissing a case brought by a man who said he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest.

A man who alleges he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest in the 1980s, but didn't remember until 20 years later, should be able to go back to court and have experts testify about repressed memories, a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals said Monday.

The case brought in 2006 by Jim Keenan, 44, against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona was dismissed last October after Ramsey County District Judge Gregg Johnson ruled he hadn't met the standard that would allow an expert to testify about repressed memories. Without the expert testimony, Keenan couldn't show why the six-year statute of limitations shouldn't apply.

Nick Cafardi, professor of law at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said the ruling is significant because it could open the door for older cases in which the statute of limitations has passed.

"It's a door that's open now that wasn't open before, which potentially has the effect of increasing the number of cases that can be brought now against dioceses in Minnesota" or other entities, Cafardi said.

Archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath issued a statement saying it was disappointed the appeals court reversed the decision. The archdiocese has 30 days to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"[The] ruling demonstrates that these issues are both complex and unique, and we will continue to try and resolve the matter without the necessity of a trial," the statement said.

Michael Finnegan, one of Keenan's attorneys, said the decision will give sexual abuse survivors who have repressed memories "a better opportunity to have the jury hear about how that happens to a child."

"In Minnesota, for decades, institutions including the Archdiocese of St. Paul and the Diocese of Winona have hid behind the statute of limitations and used that to keep survivors from getting justice," Finnegan said. "This decision allows this courageous survivor, James Keenan, to go forward with his claims and hopefully expose the names of all the offenders."

Keenan, of Savage, went public with his identity last December after the archdiocese asked the court to make him pay $64,000 in legal expenses, a request later withdrawn. In his suit, Keenan said he was abused by former priest Thomas Adamson while he was serving at Church of the Risen Savior in Burnsville. Keenan also said church officials knew of other abuse complaints against Adamson.

Jeff Anderson, whose law firm represents Keenan, obtained an archdiocesan list of 33 priests accused of sexual abuse involving minors. The Diocese of Winona has a similar list with 13 alleged abusers. Anderson has pressed to make both lists public, but has been barred by court order. Now that Keenan's case is moving forward, Finnegan hopes the lists will be made public during trial.

Twin Cities archdiocese officials have argued releasing the names could subject an innocent person to false accusations.

Reaction to sex abuse

The unanimous appeals court ruling says child sex abuse cases shouldn't be held to a higher standard when it comes to the admissibility of expert testimony about why such victims may not be able to remember traumatic events. The decision pointed to a recent state Supreme Court ruling that said experts should be allowed to explain why adult sex assault victims might not report crimes immediately or behave in other ways that might be confusing to a jury.

In this case, the appeals court decision said expert testimony may help the jury understand the difference between repressed memory and forgetting.

"The reaction of a child to sexual abuse, under the circumstances alleged in this case, may be outside the common understanding of an average juror," the decision said.

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said in a statement that juries should hear about how victims deal with their trauma.

"We firmly believe that juries should hear from both victims and experts and that bishops should not be able to get abuse and cover-up cases tossed out of court easily -- using all kinds of legal technicalities, like the statutes of limitations," Clohessy's statement said.

Keenan's claim that the archdiocese and diocese failed to disclose that Adamson had a history of sexual abuse will also be allowed to go forward, the appeals court said. Those two fraud claims were dismissed by the district court because of the statute of limitations, but the appeals court reversed that decision.

"If, indeed, appellant did not become aware that he had been abused until 2001 or 2002, he could not have known that he had a viable fraud claim until then," the decision said.

Lora Pabst • 612-916-7212 Twitter: @lorapabst

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