Court orders New Ulm, Duluth dioceses to release sex abuse documents

A Ramsey County judge has ordered Catholic officials in New Ulm and Duluth and the religious order Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate to release all documents pertaining to alleged clergy sex abuse dating as far back as 1949.

Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann issued the order after hearing arguments in the case of a man who accuses the Rev. James Vincent Fitzgerald of sexually abusing him when he was boy in 1976.

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Guthmann ordered the two dioceses and Oblates of Mary Immaculate to provide all documents regarding alleged abuse by any priest employed by the churches or was present at any of their facilities since 1949.

"These are documents that have been held and divulged to the Diocese of New Ulm and the Diocese of Duluth and for the eyes of the bishops only and their top officials," said attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents the man who has accused Fitzgerald of abuse. "Now we get to have them for our eyes. And we think it's an important development in this case."

The documents may show a pattern of sexual abuse that is admissible during trial, Anderson said.

Susan Gaertner, attorney for the Diocese of Duluth, said church officials there will comply with the judge's order now that it is more specific.

She said the plaintiff was previously on a "fishing expedition" when requesting a much bigger volume of documents that the judge has cut short in this most recent order.

"What it has cut short is a kind of wide-ranging, really oppressive kind of discovery that the plaintiff was seeking," Gaertner said.

The order requests information from the time Fitzgerald was ordained in 1949 to 1978, a period when the alleged abuse took place. Fitzgerald worked in several parishes across the state. He died in 2009.

Gaertner said the Diocese of Duluth will comply with the judge's order, but she doesn't anticipate there to be much more information than what's already been submitted as part of the litigation process.

"We turned over everything we have related to this particular priest and in our view that was all that was relevant to this case," she said.

The judge gave the Dioceses of New Ulm and Duluth a Feb. 17 deadline, and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate a March 27 deadline because it hasn't been as involved in the process.

"Alleged abuse by any priest prior to the abuse experienced by plaintiff is probative of plaintiff's viable claims and potentially admissible," Guthmann wrote in his order. "It doesn't matter who engaged in the abuse as long as the alleged events occurred before the abuse experienced by plaintiff."