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VOL. 124 | NO. 102 | Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Priest Abuse Case Goes to Higher Court

By Bill Dries

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Attorneys for a man who claims he was abused by a Catholic priest more than 30 years ago are expected to file their answer this week to an appeal by the local diocese to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Norman Redwing, 48, filed suit in October against the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, claiming he was sexually abused by the Rev. Milton Guthrie during the 1970s at Holy Names parish in North Memphis. Guthrie died in 2002.

Attorneys for the diocese sought to have Redwing’s lawsuit dismissed because of two earlier appeals court rulings in similar cases.

In those cases, the court ruled that the alleged victims had waited too long to file claims of fraudulent concealment by the diocese. The victims, within a year of turning 18, should have asked church officials whether they knew of such abuse by the priests, according to the appeals court rulings.

Finer points

Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey denied the motion to dismiss the Redwing case.

“You are advocating, in essence, that in any priest-church-sexual abuse case, the statute of limitations of inquiry notice as a matter of law occurs within a year of majority,” Bailey said at an April hearing, according to a transcript included with this month’s motion for extraordinary appeal.

Casey Shannon, attorney for the diocese, replied “yes” in cases where negligent hiring, supervision and retention are alleged, “because all I’m doing is advocating that this court go by what the superior courts have said is the law.”

Bailey, however, didn’t agree that the facts in the other two cases were necessarily the same as the Redwing case.

“I don’t believe that it’s that absolute,” he told Shannon.

Bailey added a handwritten note to the formal notice of his decision, reading: “The record does not establish as a matter of law that sufficient facts as to the defendant’s potential liability could have been known more than a year prior to the filing of the lawsuit.”

Denials

The first civil cases alleging child sexual abuse by Memphis Catholic priests were filed in the summer of 2004. The first settlements of the lawsuits filed in Shelby County Circuit Court began in September 2007.

The diocese sought an interlocutory appeal of Bailey’s ruling days after his denial of the motion to dismiss. An interlocutory appeal is an appeal of a court ruling made before the trial or the case has concluded.

Bailey denied the diocesan motion for permission to seek such an appeal at a hearing earlier this month.

The denial set the stage for the extraordinary appeal, which may be granted under rules of appellate procedure “if the lower court has so far departed from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings as to require immediate review.”

In his extraordinary appeal, Shannon argued that the three cases are similar. The West Tennessee case decided by the appeals court involved another Memphis priest, the Rev. Daniel DuPree. The Middle Tennessee case involved a Nashville priest, the Rev. Edward McKeown.

All three cases allege that the abuse happened when each of the three plaintiffs were minors. More than 10 years went by before the lawsuits were filed in each case.

None of the victims allege repressed memories, or not remembering the abuse until a much later date. Instead, the victims were aware of the abuse but didn’t file legal claims until years later.

Why the victims did not report the abuse immediately is a key issue in each of the cases. And each lawsuit claims the alleged victims knew of a close relationship between the diocese and the accused priests.

The Tennessee Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the ruling in the DuPree case earlier this year.

Alterations

The appeals court decisions prompted the diocese to seek dismissal of another John Doe lawsuit pending before Circuit Court Judge Karen Williams.

Williams dismissed the claim in March. It alleged child sexual abuse by the Rev. Paul St. Charles and named the diocese as a defendant for fraudulent concealment of past abuse by St. Charles.

But after Bailey’s ruling in the Redwing case, Gary K. Smith and Karen Campbell, the attorneys for Redwing and John Doe in the St. Charles case, filed a motion asking Williams to “alter or amend” her dismissal. The motion is pending.

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