Retrial ordered in abuse victims’ fraud claim against diocese

Pioneer Press: A judge on Wednesday ordered a new trial for the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay in a civil fraud lawsuit brought by two childhood victims of clergy abuse.

In an 11-page decision, Outagamie County Judge Nancy Krueger threw out a $700,000 verdict awarded to two brothers, now adults, by a jury in May. Krueger outlined information a juror should have expressed to the court before the fraud trial, WLUK-TV reported.

An attorney for the diocese had argued a retrial is necessary because jurors who made the award had expressed concerns about possible bias by one of the jury members.

“Whether these thoughts were just suspicions or a verified fact, they would affect her impartiality,” the judge wrote.

Todd and Troy Merryfield were molested by the Rev. John Feeney in 1978. The brothers said the diocese knew Feeney had a history of sexual misconduct when he was installed as priest at St. Nicholas Church in Freedom. Feeney was convicted in 2004 of sexually assaulting the Merryfields and has been defrocked.

Troy Merryfield’s attorney, John Peterson, said the juror never brought her concerns forward because she didn’t feel they swayed her opinion against the diocese.

“Assuming that she felt as she said that this made no difference to her at all in terms of serving as a juror, why would she bring it to the court’s attention?” Peterson said.

The diocese has said it had no knowledge of abuse.

Todd Merryfield told WLUK-TV in a phone interview that he’s disappointed
by the judge’s ruling, but even more frustrated with the diocese.

“I can’t believe that the bishop is actually still allowing the defense team to pursue us like this. Own up, take responsibility for what you did. The cover-up is going to be worse for your institution than the actual deed,” he told the news station.

In a statement, Deacon Timothy Reilly reiterated the diocese’s apology to the Merryfields “for the abuse perpetrated upon them.”

“What John Feeney did to them was wrong and inexcusable,” Reilly said.

Still, he said, the diocese applauds the judge’s decision granting a new trial.

“This was a difficult decision for her, but she rightfully made her conclusion based upon the integrity of the justice and jury system and the right of all parties to a fair and impartial trial,” Reilly said.

He said he knows the process “has been difficult for the Merryfields, for other victims/survivors of sexual abuse and for the faithful of the Diocese of Green Bay.”

“However, justice and the pursuit of the truth compel us to fight these unfounded allegations,” Reilly said.

A date for the new trial has not yet been set.

Jeff Anderson, an attorney representing both Merryfields, called the judge’s order disappointing but said he looks forward to a new trial.

“We applaud the courage of Todd and Troy Merryfield and their entire family for speaking out and taking action on behalf of the many kids who remain imperiled by reason of the Diocese’s actions,” Anderson said in a statement. “We are grateful to them and will continue to work with them to get this Diocese to speak truth, be transparent and protect the children.”

John Pilmaier, Wisconsin director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, released a statement saying it was “a sad day for victims of clergy sexual assault, their families, and for Catholics in the Green Bay diocese.”

The Merryfields dropped their punitive damage claim after the May verdict. The brothers said they weren’t out for money, but to make sure the abuse they faced doesn’t happen to others.