Duluth diocese sued for sex abuse documents, including case with Lake Lillian parish connections
DULUTH — For the third time in eight months, the Catholic Diocese of Duluth is the subject of a lawsuit seeking the public release of thousands of documents detailing the history of priest sex abuse cases in northeastern Minnesota.
The suit, filed Wednesday in State District Court in Ramsey County by an alleged abuse victim, makes the same demand for the Diocese of New Ulm — the only diocese in the state that has not yet released a list of its priests who have been “credibly accused” of abuse.
The alleged victim, identified in court documents only as “Doe 30,” claims that he was abused by Father James Vincent Fitzgerald at St. Catherine’s Church in Squaw Lake as a 13-year-old in 1976.
Attorneys for the man and other victims claim that the diocese probably has thousands of documents detailing the church’s handling of abuse cases, including Fitzgerald’s.
The diocese, however, said Wednesday that no abuse allegations were ever brought against Fitzgerald during his 26 years working at six northern Minnesota parishes.
“We have no record of any allegations being made against Father Fitzgerald during this time and we were unaware of any allegations against him until late 2013 when we received word from the Diocese of Crookston that a lawsuit naming Father Fitzgerald had been filed,” Vicar General James Bissonette said in a statement.
“On December 12th, Bishop Paul Sirba sent a letter to the parishioners, priests and deacons of the parishes where Father Fitzgerald served to let them know of the lawsuit and to ask anyone who may have been a victim of Father Fitzgerald to come forward. We also included Father Fitzgerald in the list of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor that we voluntarily released last December.”
The alleged victim is represented by attorney Mike Finnegan of St. Paul-based Jeff Anderson and Associates, a firm that specializes in sex abuse cases. Speaking at a Wednesday news conference in Duluth, Finnegan said Fitzgerald left a “sordid” history of abuse across the Midwest.
“We believe that Vincent Fitzgerald could be one of the worst perpetrators in the state of Minnesota,” Finnegan said. “We believe that this man had access to kids for years and years and years, and his higher-ups knew that he abused kids or should have known that he abused kids, and kept moving him around from parish to parish, where he abused more kids.”
Fitzgerald, who died in 2009, worked at six parishes within the Diocese of Duluth from 1957 to 1983: St. Michael’s in Northome, Our Lady of the Snows in Bigfork, St. Theresa in Effie, Holy Cross in Orr, Immaculate Conception in Nett Lake and St. Catherine in Squaw Lake.
Fitzgerald’s name appeared on lists of credibly accused priests released recently by the dioceses of Duluth and Crookston, and Finnegan said he has also been accused of abusing children on three reservations in Minnesota and South Dakota.
The suit filed Wednesday alleges that Fitzgerald sexually abused Doe 30 when he brought the boy on a two-week trip to Squaw Lake.
In 1976, Fitzgerald spent 12 weeks at a pastoral education program in Willmar and worked at a parish in nearby Lake Lillian, Finnegan said. There, Fitzgerald asked for a boy to accompany him back to Squaw Lake to serve as a temporary altar boy. The alleged victim, coming from a devout Catholic family, volunteered.
The New Ulm Diocese in a statement acknowledged that Fitzgerald had worked in the pastoral education program from 1977 to 1978, and that it “deeply regrets” any history of abuse that took place.
“He was up there for two weeks, trapped alone with this priest, and was abused repeatedly,” Finnegan said.
Finnegan said the bishops at the time tried to cover up sex abuse allegations against Fitzgerald by moving him to other parishes. While Fitzgerald was working in the Duluth diocese when Doe 30 was allegedly abused, Finnegan said New Ulm is also included in the suit because there is evidence to suggest that officials there also had knowledge of his abuse.
The suit also names the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order to which Fitzgerald belonged.
Two other suits, filed in June and December 2013, are also seeking the release of Diocese of Duluth sex abuse documents. The diocese voluntarily released a list of its credibly accused priests Dec. 31, but attorneys for the alleged victims have argued that the diocese should be ordered to turn over its complete files on each of the priests.
The diocese has argued that the release of the priests’ names should bring closure to victims and has sought to keep documents confidential. Sixth Judicial District Judge David Johnson is considering a motion to dismiss the most significant portions of the suits, and is expected to issue a ruling soon.
In its statement Wednesday, the diocese encouraged abuse victims to continue to report their experiences to the authorities.
“It is our most profound hope and the daily subject of our prayers that all those who suffered abuse by a member of our clergy find peace and healing through the love of Christ and that they come forward to civil authorities and to the church’s diocesan assistance coordinators,” Bissonette said.
All three suits have been brought under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton last May. The legislation opened a three-year window for past victims of childhood sexual abuse to file claims that would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitations.