Attorney: Diocese of Duluth should pay millions to child abuse victim

Attorney Jeff Anderson asked jurors in Ramsey County Wednesday to award $11.7 million to a man who says he was sexually abused by a priest in the Diocese of Duluth when he was a teenager in the late 1970s.

The case is the first clergy sex abuse lawsuit to be argued in front of a jury in Minnesota since state lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act in 2013, according to available court records. The law opened a three-year window for people to file lawsuits for older incidents of abuse.

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For decades, most clergy sex abuse cases in Minnesota had been settled privately or were tossed out of court. Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis prevented hundreds of cases from going to trial when it filed for bankruptcy.

Anderson has represented thousands of victims of clergy sex abuse across the country, but his cases are rarely decided by a jury. Two of his cases that went before juries in Minnesota attracted national attention — one in 1990, the other in 1996.

It's possible the lawsuit against the Diocese of Duluth could still end in a settlement, but in court Wednesday, neither side showed any sign of backing down.

Anderson told jurors that his 52-year-old client, identified in the lawsuit as Doe 30, had been sexually abused by the Rev. James Vincent Fitzgerald at St. Catherine's parish in Squaw Lake, Minn., in about 1978. As a result of the abuse, Anderson said, the man has been unable to trust people, struggled in school, and has never been in a serious relationship.

He showed jurors a childhood photo of his client dressed in a neat blue blazer, white shirt and dark tie, smiling at the camera.

The boy's family were devout Catholics. The boy put money from his paper route in the Sunday offering. His mother prayed he would become a priest. She even nicknamed her son, "the little bishop," Anderson said.

He told the jurors Fitzgerald convinced the mother to allow her son to stay with him over the summer to help out as an altar boy in a rural parish. On the drive to the parish, Fitzgerald and the boy stopped to spend the night in a camper. The priest told the boy to take off his clothes, he said.

In the cramped sleeping area in the camper that night, the boy felt "what he thought was the hand of God on his genitals," Anderson told jurors. "He freezes. He was a sexual innocent."

The boy asked to use a phone so he could call his mother, Anderson said, but Fitzgerald refused. The abuse continued for the next two weeks.

About two months later, the boy tried to kill himself by overdosing on pills, Anderson said. He began to talk about the abuse, and his mother told their parish priest.

The man's case centers on whether the Diocese of Duluth was negligent in how it supervised Fitzgerald, who died in 2009.

Anderson told jurors the Duluth diocese should have known that priests could pose a risk to children.

He showed jurors a 1958 letter from the founder of a treatment center for priests, sent to Bishop Thomas Welch of Duluth, warning that offenders are "always dangerous" and cannot be cured. The letter writer cautioned that abusers who are placed back in ministry will not stop abusing.

Attorney Susan Gaertner, who represents the Diocese of Duluth, told jurors in her opening statement that no one disputes whether the boy was abused.

"And that is sad, and it's awful, absolutely awful," Gaertner, the former Ramsey County attorney, said.

She told jurors the Diocese of Duluth wasn't at fault.

"The Diocese of Duluth did not have one piece of information that Father Fitzgerald, Vincent Fitzgerald, would pose a risk to children," Gaertner said.

Instead, she blamed the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order that ordained Fitzgerald, for failing to warn the Diocese of Duluth about Fitzgerald before he arrived in the diocese.

Gaertner signaled the man's family life wouldn't be off limits in court. "He was bullied at school," she told jurors. "Worst of all, he was bullied sometimes by his own siblings at school. And if they weren't bullying him at school, they were bullying him at home."

Gaertner also claimed the mother wouldn't listen when her son tried to tell her what happened. "She didn't want to hear it," she said.