Woman triumphs in lawsuit against church

Jury unanimously recommends $2 million award.

News-Leader.com/April 30, 2005
By Linda Leicht

A jury of 10 women and two men recommended an award of $2 million to Teresa Norris in her lawsuit against the West Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church Friday night. Norris and her husband, Sid Norris, sued the conference, claiming that church officials failed to act on warnings about a pastor Norris alleges later raped her.

After six hours of deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Norris. The jury also ruled that the conference is liable for punitive damages. Those damages will be decided Tuesday afternoon when the jury will return to hear more testimony on that issue.

Norris told the jury that she was raped by David Finestead, former pastor of Campbell United Meth-odist Church, on the night of March 25, 1998, in her office at the church. She served as director of music ministry at Campbell from Sept. 1, 1997, to April 28, 1998.

The jury clearly accepted Norris' allegations as true, despite the efforts of attorneys for the conference to discredit Norris through medical records from 1985 that described her as schizophrenic, court records from that year naming her as a co-respondent in a divorce suit, the lack of a police report or physical evidence, and witnesses supporting Finestead.

The jury also agreed with Norris that Bishop Ann B. Sherer and former District Superintendent Jim Ireland were given sufficient warning that Finestead posed a danger to women when they received numerous complaints from male and female members and employees of the church that the pastor used sexual innuendoes and made inappropriate and sexually charged comments.

Friends and supporters of both sides of the case were in the courtroom throughout the two-week trial, many of them waiting until 9 p.m. when the jury returned with a verdict.

Jill Catt, who testified on Norris' behalf, was one of those supporters.

"I'm so glad," said Catt after hugging her friend following the verdict. "I am so proud of Teresa and her family."

Church supporters were somber as the Norrises hugged their friends and lawyers. Bishop Sherer sat, unmoving and ashen, facing toward the empty judge's bench as Norris received congratulations behind her.

The Rev. Bruce Davis, current pastor at Campbell, worked his way through the jubilant group, leaned over the wooden rail and quietly told the bishop, "I'm going home to break the news to the folks."

The bishop declined to comment on the verdict, as did her attorney, Patrick McGrath of Kansas City.

Michael Fletcher, Norris' attorney, could barely contain his excitement.

"Thank you, Jesus," he cried.

"Oh, yes," Norris responded. "Can you believe it?"

Earlier in the evening, McGrath said he believed the jury instructions contained an error in the wording. That error, he said, could be the basis of an appeal.

The instructions said that in order to find for the plaintiff, the jury must believe that Sherer and Ireland knew that "harm" by Finestead was "certain or substantially certain to result."

McGrath suggested that deliberations took six hours because the jurors were confused about the instructions.

"It didn't make it clear that the harm that was at issue was the sexual assault," he said.

On the stand, Sid Norris said he expected the case to be appealed if he and his wife won.

"It's not about the money," he said later. "We just wanted to know that we did all we could do."

Norris will present her case Tuesday for punitive damages — set as a punishment to the church for its actions or lack of action.

"You have to tell them what they did was wrong," Fletcher told the jury before they began deliberations Friday. "There is no group more deserving of punitive damage than this one."

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