Nashville, Tenn. - Claims against the Catholic Diocese of Memphis for failure to prevent the sexual assault of a young parishioner by a priest can proceed, according to a unanimous opinion by the Tennessee Supreme Court today.
Norman Redwing alleges that between 1972 and 1974, when he was a young teenager, Father Milton Guthrie sexually abused him. Nearly 30 years later, in Aug. 2008, Redwing filed suit in Shelby County against the Catholic Diocese of Memphis. Since Father Guthrie is deceased, he was not named as a defendant. Redwing alleges that the Diocese acted negligently in regards to hiring, retention and supervision of Father Guthrie. The complaint also alleges that the Diocese was aware or should have been aware that Father Guthrie was a dangerous sexual predator and that it misled Redwing and his family regarding their knowledge of the priest’s history.
The Diocese asked the trial court to dismiss the case, arguing that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine deprives state courts of jurisdiction over cases against the church and that the victim’s claims were barred by statute of limitations. The Supreme Court determined that religious organizations are not shielded from suits involving property rights, torts (like Redwing’s claims) and criminal conduct as long as the court can resolve the dispute by applying neutral legal principles and is not required to rely on religious doctrine to decide the case.
Typically, victims have up to one year after the abuse occurred to file a lawsuit, unless there are mitigating circumstances. Redwing claims that the Diocese knew that Father Guthrie had sexually abused minors. He also claims that the Diocese purposely misled him about its knowledge of Father Guthrie's conduct and its responsibility to supervise Father Guthrie. The Supreme Court reversed a divided Court of Appeals ruling and reinstated the trial court’s original ruling. The Court ruled that the dismissal was premature because at this point insufficient evidence had been provided to substantiate Redwing’s claim of fraudulent concealment.
The Supreme Court also pointed out that its ruling was based solely on the allegations contained in Redwing’s complaint filed in court. The trial court can still be presented with new evidence and the case could still be subsequently dismissed.
The opinion was prepared for the Court by Justice William C. Koch, Jr.
For more information or to read the entire opinion, visit: W2009-00986-SC-R11-CV - Norman Redwing v. Catholic Bishop for the Diocese of Memphis