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Abuse victims seek broader access to Diocese of Duluth documents

DULUTH, Minn. -- Attorneys representing alleged victims of clergy sex abuse were in court Thursday asking a judge to grant broader access to internal documents kept by the Diocese of Duluth.

The diocese in December 2013 publicly released the names of all priests it considered "credibly accused" of abuse, but officials have combated advocates' efforts to examine decades' worth of files.

"These documents are the secret documents that Bishop (Paul) Sirba has under lock and key at the diocese headquarters," attorney Mike Finnegan said. He claimed that the documents "show what the bishops knew, when they knew it and how they sealed and covered up child sex abuse for years."

At a Thursday afternoon hearing, Finnegan asked 6th Judicial District Judge Shaun Floerke to order the diocese to turn over all of its files on child sex abuse -- a request that a diocese attorney likened to a "fishing expedition."

The request was brought in a lawsuit filed against the diocese by "Doe 28," an anonymous man who claims he was sexually abused by a Duluth priest in the 1970s. Attorneys are in the pre-trial discovery phase, working to exchange relevant information to prepare for trial.

Susan Gaertner, the Minneapolis attorney representing the diocese, argued that the discovery request was excessive.

The lawsuit is specific to allegations made by one individual against the late Rev. Robert Klein. Doe 28 alleges that Klein abused him numerous times over a several-year period in the early 1970s in Duluth.

To ask for details of all allegations against all priests in the past 40 years "lacks common sense," Gaertner said.

"They're asking for every piece of paper about every priest that might have ever been implicated," she told the judge. "There is simply no justification for that kind of fishing expedition."

Finnegan countered by arguing that complete records would demonstrate whether or not the diocese appropriately dealt with allegations against its priests. The suit claims that the diocese was negligent in allowing Klein to have unsupervised contact with children, even after abuse complaints were received.

"We have to find out what the diocese knowledge was," Finnegan said.

Floerke took the motion under advisement and said he would issue a written ruling at a later date.

A list on the diocese's website contains the names of 27 former or currently suspended priests who have been "credibly accused" of abuse while working within the Duluth diocese or another institution.

Finnegan's law firm, St. Paul-based Jeff Anderson and Associates, already has received some documents from the Diocese of Duluth. A Ramsey County district judge in January ordered the release of all documents detailing abuse that is alleged to have occurred prior to 1978.

The firm has obtained broad access to documents from other Minnesota dioceses, including the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

However, attorneys for abuse victims have run into some roadblocks in Duluth. Last year, 6th Judicial District Judge David Johnson dismissed portions of two suits against the Duluth diocese. The judge ruled that plaintiffs could not pursue "nuisance" claims -- a ruling that limited advocates' efforts to obtain full access to documents.

Even if attorneys for the victims prevail in the latest battle, the public won't get immediate access to the records. Judges in both St. Louis and Ramsey counties have granted protective orders barring them from disclosing information to anyone outside of the case.

With the filing of an additional lawsuit on Monday, there are now four cases pending against the Diocese of Duluth.

The suits were brought under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, a law that opened a three-year window for victims of decades-old abuse to file claims, eliminating the statute of limitations. The window is set to expire in May 2016.

The Doe 28 case is scheduled to go before a St. Louis County jury in September.

Finnegan said he would seek to take depositions from top diocese officials once the discovery process is completed.