Judge rejects archdiocese plea to drop clergy abuse case

Charges of church negligence in the handling of sexually abusive priests will be heard by a jury this fall.

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Thomas Adamson is seen while being deposed in a lawsuit. Adamson admitted to sexually abusing at least 10 boys.

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The clergy sex abuse lawsuit against the Twin Cities archdiocese will move to a jury trial, a Ramsey County district judge ruled Monday.

Attorneys for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona had asked the court for a summary judgment that would dismiss the case.

But Judge John Van de North said a jury trial would proceed, now set for Sept. 22.

“This case needs to be tried,” said Van de North. The alleged victim “deserves a day in court, at least on the negligence claims.”

The judge said he would take under advisement a separate claim that the church’s handling of sex abusers posed a public nuisance.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of a man who claimed he was abused in the mid-1970s by the former Rev. Thomas Adamson. It contends that church officials here and in Winona put children and others at risk of abuse by failing to disclose information about Adamson and other abusive priests — and that the practice has continued to the present day.

The practice has created a “public nuisance,’’ says the lawsuit, which also claims negligent supervision and retention.

The lawsuit has forced open the personnel vaults of the archdiocese and led to the unprecedented disclosure of more than 50,000 pages of church documents on clergy child abuse. It’s also prompted the public release of names of priests credibly accused of child abuse.

Foreseeing danger

The archdiocese had argued that a key element in proving a negligence claim is “foreseeability,” meaning the claim would have to prove that the church had foreseen the danger in its practices of handling abusive priests.

But no evidence exists to show that Archbishop John Roach knew of Adamson’s history in 1976, when the plaintiff was abused, said archdiocese attorney Tom Wieser. The archdiocese was unaware of Adamson’s sexual misconduct until 1980, he said.

“Abundant evidence shows that [former] Bishop Watters of Winona knew Adamson’s history of child molestation when he sent him to the Twin Cities,” Wieser wrote in a memorandum to the court. “But Archbishop Roach and Watters both have unequivocally denied that Watters conveyed that history to Roach.”

However, Jeff Anderson, an attorney for the man behind the lawsuit, identified as John Doe 1, presented archdiocese correspondence from the mid-1970s that indicated knowledge of Adamson’s past sexual misconduct in the Winona diocese, where he served before coming to the Twin Cities.

A 1975 letter from Watters to the Rev. Ken Pierre, a psychologist who worked for the archdiocese, was a case in point.

“I am convinced that he [Adamson] doesn’t even begin to appreciate the numbers of people in at least five different communities across the entire diocese who have finally pieced together incidents occurring over a 15-year span … ” Watters wrote.

Archdiocese response

Wieser said he had hoped for a judge’s decision that could “short-circuit some of the issues,” but the archdiocese will now move forward. He insisted the nuisance claim held no legal ground.

“There have been a number of other judges who have reviewed the same legal issue and have concluded the law just simply does not support this type of a claim,” he said.

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