A settlement has been approved in what is being described as a landmark case against the Catholic church in Minnesota. The case alleged that Minnesota Catholic church leaders created a public nuisance through their failure to warn churchgoers to keep their children away from a sexually abusive priest. It is believed that this case is the first in the nation to hold a church liable for abuse under the “public nuisance” legal theory.
Through the public nuisance theory, victims can request a broad range of evidence from all over the archdiocese, as opposed to simply focusing on abuse that happened to one victim. In the instant case, it resulted in the release of thousands of internal church documents along with the names of numerous priests accused of sexual abuse over the years. The disclosures revealed the internal workings of church leadership and how it handled accusations of sexual abuse by its priests.
The case was initiated under a May 2013 Minnesota law that temporarily canceled statutes of limitations in expired sex abuse cases. The law gives Minnesota victims a three-year window to file such antiquated claims. Similar legislation in other states has resulted in victims receiving tens of millions of dollars in financial restitution.
Abuse Happened in the 1970s
Lawyers representing the church initially requested that the case be dismissed, saying that there was no support for a public nuisance claim in such a case, but the judge decided the matter should proceed. During court proceedings, the victim said a priest, who was employed by the church, abused him in the 1970s. In addition, the complaint alleged that the diocese and archdiocese committed negligence by allowing the same priest to continue having access to children, in spite of their knowledge that the priest was abusing children. The accused priest has since admitted to abusing 12 teenagers over a period of 20 years.
Will This Open the Door for Similar Public Nuisance Suits?
When a church ignores a known problem of sexual abuse by one of its employees and allows the abuse to continue unchecked, the church may be liable for the personal injuries that result. This case is unique because it has successfully used a new legal theory to hold a church accountable for such negligence. This case settled out of court, though, so it will be interesting to see in the future how a judge or jury might rule on a similar matter of alleged public nuisance should such a case proceed to a final hearing and judgment.
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