Jury returns $8.1M verdict in Duluth priest sex abuse case

Ruling against Duluth diocese

DULUTH, Minn. - In a historic move, a Ramsey County jury returned an $8.1 million verdict in a case of sexual abuse by a priest from the Diocese of Duluth.

The case is the first to be tried under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, a 2013 law that lifts the statutes of limitations for victims to file suit in decades-old abuse.

The 52-year-old victim filed a lawsuit in 2014 claiming he was sexually abused for two weeks in the 1970s by Father James Vincent Fitzgerald, a now-deceased priest from the Diocese of Duluth. The abuse happened at St. Catherine's Church in Squaw Lake, Minn. -- a parish of the Diocese.

The jury found the Diocese 60 percent at fault, while the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order to which Fitzgerald belonged, was 40 percent at fault. The $8 million verdict was awarded for the victim's pain, suffering, loss of earnings and medical suffering.

"It's an important day for all clergy abuse survivors," said attorney Jeff Anderson, who represented the plaintiff in the case. "This verdict sends a message and a wake-up call to all communities and organizations, near and far, that the most important thing is the safety of our children. Today, a truth was revealed and justice was served."

The $8.1 million verdict is the largest damage award ever given to one victim of sexual abuse by clergy in the nation, according to figures from BishopAccountability.org.

Law experts say this verdict sets an important precedent for the hundreds of abuse cases that are pending right now against the Archdioses of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and other diocese in Minnesota.

"Clearly it establishes a very high bar," said Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas. "Clearly it establishes a threshold for damages that is very large. You can see damage awards now being in the millions of dollars in other cases."

Reid said the size of this verdict could end up brankrupting other diocese involved in similar lawsuits.


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