The St. Cloud Diocese faces the prospect of making unprecedented disclosures about priests accused of sexual misconduct, under a ruling filed Monday in Stearns County court that builds on a series of legal victories for Minnesotans claiming clergy abuse.
Judge Kris Davick-Halfen ruled that lawyers can proceed with a "public nuisance" claim against the diocese by an alleged victim of priest sex abuse — a move that allows attorneys to investigate the diocese's records and documents on all priests who have been accused of misconduct over decades.
Four of Minnesota's six dioceses now face similar court-ordered scrutiny. Judges have made similar rulings on the public nuisance claim in the dioceses of Winona and New Ulm as well as the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The motion is under advisement in a case against a priest from the Diocese of Duluth.
The St. Cloud Diocese declined to comment on the ruling. It serves 130,000 Catholics in 16 counties across central Minnesota.
"These nuisance suits put Minnesota at the forefront of a growing national movement to expose those who commit and conceal heinous crimes against children," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "In no state have as many victims successfully used the nuisance argument to unearth more records of abuse and names of perpetrators."
The legal strategy is unique to Minnesota and was pioneered by victims' attorney Jeff Anderson. It argues that a diocese created a public nuisance by allowing priests to remain in public ministry and failing to inform the public about their past.
Minnesota's first nuisance claim, approved in Ramsey County in 2013, resulted in depositions of top archdiocese officials, public release of tens of thousands of pages of priest files, and the release of additional names of clergy sex abusers in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Anderson said.
The St. Cloud Diocese lawsuit was filed by a man who says he was sexually abused in the early 1970s by Rev. James Thoennes in the city of Foley. It says the diocese knew that Thoennes had abused two children in St. Cloud in the 1960s, yet assigned him to St. John's Parish and School, where the alleged victim was a student and altar boy.
The boy, who was 11 or 12 at the time, was abused during overnight stays with Thoennes at the home of Thoennes' mother, the complaint said.
As the lawsuit moves forward, Anderson will be seeking depositions of the current and former bishop and other top officials at the diocese.
"The implications are huge," Anderson said. "When we started with the archdiocese, they had 33 priests on their list [of credibly accused priests]. When we ended, it was 66."
Only the Diocese of Crookston successfully denied the public nuisance claim early on, said Anderson, adding, "I'm confident there will be another case there in the future."
Attorneys across the country are watching how these cases unfold in Minnesota, said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University in New York and a national expert on clergy abuse litigation. Anderson said he has introduced the nuisance claim in cases in Chicago and Long Island, N.Y.
"This is a novel strategy that is particularly valuable because it focuses on the need of the public to be warned about potential child predators," said Hamilton.