Green Bay diocese liable for molestation cover-up

Post-Crest, Wisconsin/May 21, 2012

Appleton -- When an Outagamie County jury decided the Roman Catholic Diocese of Green Bay covered up a priest's history of child molestation, it sent a message to the rest of Wisconsin, an advocate for sexual abuse victims said.

The outcome of Todd and Troy Merryfields' civil lawsuit against the diocese Monday empowers victims across the state to come forward, said Peter Isely, the Midwest director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. For others who have reported sexual abuse by priests, this "should increase the pressure to bring these cases to a just resolution."

"That is always something that occurs when this culture of secrecy ... is pierced and opened by cases like this," Isely said.

Rev. John Feeney molested the Merryfields in 1978, when they were 12 and 14 years old. In 2004, Feeney was convicted of sexual assault of the brothers. After the criminal trial, the brothers said they learned the priest had a history of similar assaults in the 1960s and 1970s that the diocese knew about and hid from parishioners at St. Nicholas Church in Freedom, which the Merryfields attended.

So in 2008, they sued the diocese and now-deceased Bishop Aloysius Wycislo, who was in charge of ensuring priests were fit to serve, for fraudulent misrepresentation and sought unspecified damages.

Things got specific Monday, when the Merryfields' attorneys asked the jury to compensate Todd $900,000 and Troy $1.8 million for pain, suffering and medical costs related to the molestation. The diocesan attorney, Patrick Brennan, said if the jury found the diocese guilty, the brothers should be given $100,000.

The jury awarded Todd $225,000 and Troy $475,000, but that might be just part of the diocese's bill. On Wednesday morning, the jury will reconvene and hear more witnesses to determine if, and how much, the diocese must pay in punitive damages, which are punishment to deter the organization from committing fraud again.

Deacon Timothy Reilly of the Green Bay diocese read a statement outside the courthouse after the verdict, in which he apologized to the Merryfields for the pain they suffered but disagreed with the jury's decision.

The diocese argued the brothers suffered only minor trauma from the abuse and there was not enough evidence to back their claim that Bishop Wycislo knew Feeney had a history of molestation and committed fraud by representing him as safe.

"From the very beginning of the time when this lawsuit was filed against us, our focus has always been on discovering the truth and on achieving justice. If the documents and depositions indicated that there was a legitimate basis for the allegation of fraud against Bishop Wycislo and the diocese, we would not have undertaken the expense and time to so vigorously defend (them)," Reilly said.

The Green Bay diocese sent an email response to the verdict that said it has rigorous policies to ensure children are safe, including background checks on staff and volunteers, barring clergy who have a "credible allegation" of child abuse from ministry and mandatory reporting of those allegations to law enforcement.

The Catholic church hasn't been held accountable for many past abuses in Wisconsin, Isely said.

"They have enjoyed an extraordinary immunity so this is a really historic, landmark day for the victims and the truth," he said. "This is just one small drop of the deception and the lies and the devastation that has been caused to countless lives in that diocese."

Over the past week, Jeffrey Anderson and John Peterson, the Merryfields' attorneys, called several priests as witnesses. The priests testified there were allegations of inappropriate behavior by Feeney — that he swam naked with boys and showered with them after basketball games — long before he assaulted the Merryfields in 1978.

Feeney was attending mental health counseling in 1974 after he touched girls inappropriately at a church retreat, Rev. Lawrence Canavera testified. Anderson and Peterson presented a letter forwarded from psychologist Thomas Kelley to the bishop stating under stress Feeney's "usual controls over sexual impulses may fail and cause some indiscretions."

But the bishop, who died in 2005, said in a previous deposition that if there was merit to complaints of sexual abuse by Feeney, he would have immediately suspended the priest.

After the jury deliberated for five hours, Judge Nancy Krueger announced it had reached a verdict. The Merryfields stared quietly at the front of the court, Troy and his attorney fidgeted nervously — then the jurors filed in and Krueger read the verdict.

Four years after they filed the lawsuit, the Merryfields' and their attorneys shook hands and hugged in celebration. Troy sat with his arm around Todd, comforting the older brother who had spent most of his life denying the molestation ever occurred.

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