Civil case against Green Bay diocese heads to trial

APPLETON — A former Fox Valley priest spent nearly eight years in prison for the 1978 sexual assaults of two young parishioners, but his victims say justice hasn’t been fully served.

A civil lawsuit that slowly built in Outagamie County’s court system for more than four years heads to trial today as brothers Todd and Troy Merryfield, formerly of Freedom, seek unspecified damages from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Green Bay based on their childhood assaults.

Over the course of the next two weeks, a jury will determine whether the diocese is civilly responsible based on allegations it knew about sexual abuse committed by John Feeney before 1978 and fraudulently failed to inform Freedom’s St. Nicholas Catholic Church of the dangers he posed to children. The diocese denies the allegations.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin this morning.

Peter Isely, Midwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, commended the Merryfields for their years-long pursuit. The case holds significant meaning for many of Feeney’s victims who didn’t come forward, he said.

Feeney “left a river of sorrow behind him,” Isely said.

Feeney was convicted in 2003 in Outagamie County of four counts of sexually assaulting the Merryfields, who were 12 and 14 at the time of the abuse.

Troy Merryfield is now a resident of Suffolk, Va. Todd Merryfield lives in Port Washington.

“After the criminal court proceedings, the plaintiffs eventually learned that Father John Patrick Feeney had engaged in sexual abuse of several other male juveniles during the 1960s and 1970s,” the civil complaint says.

Exhibits filed with the civil complaint included a 1974 letter from a mental health professional to Feeney regarding their sessions, which discussed his sexual impulses.

Feeney made reference to the doctor’s recommendations in a 1974 letter to Green Bay’s bishop in which he wrote, “I was sorry to learn that you received more complaints about me,” documents show. The letter didn’t explicitly outline the nature of those complaints.

The diocese, in a statement released last year, said “truth and justice will prevail.”

“We will continue to fight the allegations of fraud against (former) Bishop (Aloysius) Wycislo because the allegations are false,” the statement read.

In 2010, the diocese asked the court to rule in its favor without a trial. It argued that the case was barred by statutes of limitation and that the Merryfields failed to provide sufficient facts showing diocesan knowledge of sexual misconduct or his danger to children before the boys were molested.

Outagamie County Judge Nancy Krueger determined that evidence was sufficient for the case to continue and that deadlines hadn’t expired.

This year, the diocese again asked Krueger to rule in its favor, arguing the Merryfields’ delay in bringing the lawsuit caused prejudice to the diocese in its ability to defend against the claims.