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VOL. 127 | NO. 41 | Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Supreme Court Revives Child Abuse Case

By Bill Dries

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The last in a series of civil lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Memphis and negligence by the Catholic Diocese of Memphis came back to life Monday, Feb. 27, with a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling.

The ruling in the 2008 case of Norman Redwing v. The Memphis Catholic Diocese reverses a state appeals court ruling and allows attorneys for Redwing to at least pursue discovery in the case as it returns to Circuit Court.

Redwing alleged the late priest Milton Guthrie sexually abused him in the early to mid-1970s when Redwing was a teenager younger than 18. His lawsuit is against the Catholic Diocese and claims church leaders knew or should have known Guthrie was a “sexual predator.”

The Diocese denies the claim and won a dismissal at the state appeals court on two counts.

One claimed a church autonomy doctrine known as the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” makes it immune from the claims by Redwing.

“The Diocese’s argument overreaches the bounds of the protections afforded the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” the court concluded. “Mr. Redwing is not free to covert his tort claims into an assault on the religious doctrines, practices and customs of the Roman Catholic Church.”

The Diocese also claimed the statute of limitations to pursue the legal action had passed.

“Our denial of the Diocese’s motion to dismiss does not prevent the Diocese from continuing to assert its statue of limitations defense or to again pursue this defense by motion or otherwise once all the relevant facts are known,” Justice William C. Koch Jr. wrote in the Monday, Feb. 27, ruling by the state’s highest court. “However, at this stage of the proceeding, we find that the Court of Appeals erred by dismissing Mr. Redwing’s complaint based on the running of the statute of limitations.”

The Diocese specifically argued Redwing and other victims making such allegations had a year after they turned 18 to make inquires about a pattern of child sexual abuse.

Redwing didn’t do that nor did he claim repressed memories of the abuse suddenly came to the surface decades later. The lawsuit alleges Guthrie took advantage of Redwing as a teenager and Redwing was aware of it at the time and when he filed the lawsuit in 2008.

It was the latest in a series of civil lawsuits first filed in 2004 that alleged child sexual abuse by priests in the Memphis Catholic Diocese and liability by the Diocese.

Some alleged repressed memories. Others did not. Many were settled including a John Doe lawsuit against the Diocese and the Dominican religious order in which the two institutions paid the plaintiff $2 million for his claim that both institutions covered up a pattern of abuse by the Rev. Juan Carlos Duran. Duran sexually abused the plaintiff in 1999 when the plaintiff was 14.

Thousands of pages of church documents and depositions by Diocesan leaders made public after The Daily News filed suit to intervene in the lawsuit showed church leaders urged the boy’s family not to report the sexual assault to police. The documents also detailed more than 50 years of abuse claims against 15 Memphis priests, none of which were ever reported to civil authorities.

“While the correct path between the secular and the religious is narrow, we have determined that Tennessee’s courts may adjudicate Mr. Redwing’s claims without straying into areas that are properly with in the Diocese’s exclusive domain,” reads this week’s ruling on the Diocesan claim of ecclesiastical abstention.

The court also quoted from an 1892 decision by its predecessors on the high court that has established the doctrine for more than a century. But the court also noted other past rulings that make exceptions to the doctrine for “questions of property or personal rights” and “based upon neutral principles.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling this week put the Redwing case among the exceptions.

Koch noted the jurisdiction question is one where “state and federal courts are currently sharply divided regarding the courts’ subject matter jurisdiction over suits involving claims similar to those asserted by Mr. Redwing.”

“The courts do not inhibit the free exercise of religion simply by opening their doors to a suit involving a religious organization,” Koch continued in a passage highlighted by numerous case law citations. “Thus, the weight of authority recognizes that religious institutions are not above the law … and that, like other societal institutions, they may be amenable to suits involving property rights, torts and criminal conduct. In civil cases, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is implicated only when the alleged improper conduct that gave rise to the lawsuit is rooted in religious belief.”

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