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Diocese of Duluth ordered to turn over sex abuse documents

The Diocese of Duluth has been ordered for the first time to turn over a broader range of internal documents detailing child sexual abuse cases to plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit.

Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann on Tuesday ordered the diocese to disclose all documents detailing abuse that is alleged to have occurred prior to 1978.

The order was issued in an ongoing suit filed by "Doe 30," an unidentified man who said he was abused by Father James Vincent Fitzgerald at St. Catherine's Church in Squaw Lake in the 1970s. The case is one of three pending suits against the diocese.

The diocese will have until Feb. 17 to produce the documents, which will remain under court seal.

"It's a very important order," said Mike Finnegan, an attorney representing the abuse victim. "It allows us to see how the diocese was handling abuse overall."

The scope of the discovery process was debated by attorneys. While the diocese sought to limit it to documents related to Fitzgerald, the plaintiffs argued that an extensive review of all sexual abuse cases over time was warranted.

Susan Gaertner, a Minneapolis attorney representing the diocese, said the plaintiffs had sought "pretty much any piece of paper about anything."

"The judge's ruling is a narrowly tailored one," she said. "The object of the ruling is to cut short the very expansive requests that the plaintiff made, but at the same time authorizing disclosure of information that will actually be potentially helpful in the litigation."

Guthmann said in his order that he was limiting the scope of discovery because the case only addresses claims against Fitzgerald. The suit had previously included general "nuisance" claims against the diocese, but those were dismissed by the judge.

Guthmann, in limiting the request to pre-1978 documents, said relevant information in the case could include the actions of diocese officials in handling sexual abuse claims prior to the accusations against Fitzgerald.

"There is simply no meaningful way for plaintiff to discover whether Fr. Fitzgerald's conduct created a 'specific danger (that was) objectively reasonable to expect' unless plaintiff is permitted to find out what defendants knew or arguably should have known before the abuse took place," he wrote.

Unlike other cases, including those against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the documents that are turned over to the plaintiffs cannot be made publicly available. A protective order was previously granted by the judge, barring the plaintiffs from releasing information contained in the documents.

Finnegan, of St. Paul-based Jeff Anderson and Associates, said his firm will continue to fight for access to post-1978 documents and public access to all information about sexual abuse cases.

"There is definitely more that we will seek in these cases," he said. "The goal has always been, and remains, to make sure that all the secrets of the past, up until current day, are released to the public."

Debate has raged over cases involving sexual abuse by priests in recent years, with various documents and information being released by dioceses and attorneys for victims.

The Diocese of Duluth in December 2013 voluntarily released a list of all of its past priests who had been "credibly accused" of abuse. That happened shortly after other dioceses were ordered by a judge to release their lists.

The diocese has said that it seeks to approach cases with transparency, while maintaining that a mass release of sensitive information is not the best path forward.

"The disclosure of the 'who' has already occurred," Gaertner said. "The list of priests has been published for over a year. The diocese has been very transparent about which priests have been accused."

Gaertner said she was unsure how voluminous the discovery process would be. Finnegan said he's expecting that the judge's order will cover hundreds of documents.

A jury trial in the case is scheduled for October.

The order also applies to the Diocese of New Ulm, where Fitzgerald also worked, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order to which he belonged. Both are named as co-defendants in the suit. New Ulm remains the only diocese in the state that has not released a list of accused priests.

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.

Two other cases against the Duluth diocese are pending in St. Louis County, with one scheduled to go to trial in September.