Lawsuit against diocese in Feeney sex-abuse case

APPLETON – The lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay filed by two sexual-abuse victims survived a critical test Monday in Outagamie County Circuit Court.

Judge Nancy Krueger denied a motion from the diocese to dismiss the case and ruled that the suit filed by Todd and Troy Merryfield can proceed under fraud statutes.

The Merryfields were abused by former priest John Patrick Feeney in 1978 when they were parishioners at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Freedom. They were 12 and 14 at the time. Feeney is serving the fifth year of a 15-year prison sentence on sexual-abuse convictions.

Based on a 2007 state Supreme Court decision, victims of priest abuse can sue under the fraud statutes outside the normal six-year statute of limitations if they can show that they were unaware of the fraud until a later date when the fraud was discovered.

The fraud in this case is the diocese alleged failure to inform St. Nicholas Catholic Church of Feeney’s past, including his church-ordered sexual abuse counseling.

“The placement of Father Feeney was and is of itself a misrepresentation by the diocese,” Krueger said, “and that Father Feeney was suitable to be placed and work with children and essentially that action was an affirmative representation by the diocese.”

The Merryfields were not in the courtroom to hear the decision.

Attorney Patrick Brennan, representing the diocese, argued the suit was filed past the statute of limitations and failed to specify exact names and dates of those who participated in the cover-up of Feeney’s past.

Krueger, in her ruling, said that level of detail was not necessary to meet the legal test established by the state Supreme Court decision.

Dan Wilson writes for The Post-Crescent of Appleton.