Judge: Jury should decide priest abuse lawsuit

Published 10:02 am Tuesday, July 22, 2014

ST. PAUL — A man who said he was sexually abused by a priest around 1976 deserves his day in court, a judge decided Monday in a case that has forced top local church officials including Archbishop John Nienstedt to give sworn testimony and disclose lists of priests accused of sexual misconduct.

The plaintiff, identified only as Doe 1, said he was a 14-year-old altar boy at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in St. Paul Park when Thomas Adamson molested him.

Lawyers from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona asked Ramsey County District Judge John Van de North to dismiss the lawsuit. They agreed that Adamson abused the plaintiff but argued that there weren’t sufficient legal grounds to present to a jury. But the judge said from the bench that he’ll let Doe 1 proceed with his negligence claims and decide later whether to allow him to assert a novel claim that the archdiocese created a “public nuisance” by failing to disclose its lists of accused priests.

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“Generally speaking, this case needs to be tried,” Van de North said. “Doe 1 deserves his day in court, at least on the negligence claims, and I’m going to take a closer look at nuisance.”

The case is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 22. Doe 1 is seeking unspecified financial damages on his negligence claims and the disclosure of more documents on the public nuisance claim.

Attorneys for the dioceses argued that no evidence has emerged in all the statements given by Nienstedt, other archbishops and ranking clerics, in church papers, or in testimony and documents from previous cases to show that since-deceased Archbishop John Roach or other officials learned from the Winona diocese that Adamson had an proclivity for boys before he transferred to the Twin Cities in 1975.

Adamson, who admitted in his own deposition for the Doe 1 case that he abused around a dozen teens from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, was removed from active ministry in 1985 and defrocked in 2009. He was never criminally charged but has been the subject of previous lawsuits by other victims.

Doe 1’s attorney, Jeff Anderson, has said this is the first church abuse case in the nation to test the “public nuisance” theory. It’s usually up to public authorities to invoke it, and Minnesota law allows private parties to use it only under narrow circumstances.

Thomas Wieser and other attorneys for the dioceses argued that this case doesn’t meet the criteria. They said Doe 1 has failed to show that he suffered the required “special or peculiar injury” that made him different from anyone else. And they said allowing a private party to use a public nuisance claim would create an unworkable precedent that courts elsewhere have rejected.

Van de North said he wants to see more papers from both sides before he decides. Anderson said he’s still waiting for church officials to disclose electronic communications that he believes will buttress the claim.

Wieser tried to sound a conciliatory note during the hearing.

“The archdiocese condemns in the strongest possible terms the sexual abuse by Thomas Adamson. That is inexcusable,” he said, offering “deepest apologies.”

Nienstedt has come under increasing calls to resign in recent months because of his handling of the church’s broader abuse crisis. But Anderson told reporters afterward that resignations won’t be enough.

“It’s time for them to hear the jail doors clanging behind them,” he said.