Lawyers seeking Catholic Church files regarding clergy abuse hailed a Tuesday decision by a Ramsey County district judge that they say strengthens their ability to get them.
A lawsuit involving an alleged victim of the Rev. Tom Adamson included a nuisance claim against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona, where Adamson also had served. It alleged that the church created public and private nuisances by failing to disclose information about certain priests accused of sexually abusing minors.
Judge John Van de North dismissed the private nuisance claim but allowed the public nuisance claim to move forward. The ruling eases the way for the law firm representing an anonymous plaintiff, identified as “Doe 1,” to request internal chancery correspondence and other documents from the archdiocese and diocese, a plaintiff’s attorney said.
“This opens up a whole new part of the case,” said Mike Finnegan, a lawyer with Anderson and Associates of St. Paul, which filed the lawsuit in May.
“We have the names of the priests, but we don’t have documents describing what the archdiocese knew, when they knew it and what they did with those priests after they molested kids.”
The archdiocese had argued that the nuisance claim didn’t apply to the case and that it was barred by the statute of limitations. Archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso said the archdiocese also was pleased with the ruling.
“Our concerns and objections have been recognized by Judge Van de North,” Accurso said. “The court granted the motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s private nuisance claim. However, the court determined that it was too early to dismiss the plaintiff’s public nuisance claims, at this time, acknowledging there are serious problems with it.”
Van de North wrote: “This is a close call for the Court, but again, one that needs further investigation.”
The Doe 1 case was filed after a change in state law in May that opened a three-year window for people to file older child sex abuse claims previously barred by the statute of limitations.
In the same case last week, the court ordered the archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona to release their lists of priests facing credible accusations of child sex abuse by Dec. 17. The archdiocese did so last week.
The Diocese of Winona said Tuesday that it would release its list of 13 accused priests on Dec. 16. The list will include each priest’s date of birth, year of ordination, parishes served, most current address and whether he is still alive.
Decision called a precedent
Tuesday’s decision is a precedent for other courts with clergy abuse cases pending, namely the dioceses of New Ulm, Crookston and Duluth, said Finnegan. Those dioceses are involved in lawsuits that would require them to open up their lists of credibly abused priests.
Lawyers for victims of clergy abuse have long sought the paper trail surrounding their clients’ claims. Using a “nuisance claim” to help pry that open is a first for Minnesota, Finnegan said.
Specifically, the lawsuit argues that Adamson had acknowledged abusing boys in the Winona Diocese but was nonetheless sent to the archdiocese, where he worked at several places, including St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in St. Paul Park. Families were not notified of his past, and Adamson molested Doe 1 there, the suit said.
Accurso said the archdiocese views the decision “as a significant setback for Anderson and his clients.”
The judge determined it was too early to dismiss the claim on the basis of statute of limitations, he said, and left the door open for summary judgment on it.
Finnegan countered that the ruling reinforces his law firm’s ability to seek documents and conduct depositions of witnesses.
“If he [the judge] had completely thrown this out, it would mean we can’t do discovery on this claim or take depositions,” Finnegan said.