Court OKs sex-abuse suit against diocese
By SHEILA BURKE
Church ousted Nashville priest years before incidents occurred
Two young men who say they were molested as children by former priest Edward McKeown can proceed with their $68 million lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Nashville, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The unanimous decision from the state's highest court not only clears the way for the two men to proceed with their lawsuit, which had been dismissed earlier, but also sets a new legal standard in certain claims of emotional distress.
The decision was a victory for the men, who have been seeking their day in court for five years now, one of their attorneys said.
''They feel partially vindicated,'' said attorney John Day. ''They know they've been wronged, and it is nice to see that a court has recognized that they have a right to a trial.''
Officials with the Diocese of Nashville said in a statement that they disagreed with the court's finding.
''We are disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision overturning what, we felt, was a well-reasoned decision granting summary judgment,'' the statement said. ''We were certainly looking forward to a final resolution of this case. As we have done from the outset, we maintain that our responses to the facts of this case were proper and appropriate and will allow the legal process to go forward.''
Day said he intends to ask a Davidson County court for a trial date for the two men, known in court filings only as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2.
Circuit Court Judge Walter Kurtz dismissed the lawsuit in 2001, ruling that the church could not be held accountable for abuse that occurred between 1995 and 1999, long after McKeown was forced to leave the priesthood. He left in 1989.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals sided with the diocese.
The plaintiff's lawyers have maintained that the diocese should be held liable because it unleashed a known pedophile onto an unsuspecting community.
They argued that church officials had direct knowledge of a number of instances of abuse, had been warned that McKeown probably would continue to abuse children, and failed to prevent him from molesting other boys in the community. At one point, the diocese sent McKeown to Connecticut for treatment of sexual disorders.
The plaintiffs' lawyers also accused church officials of engaging in a cover-up, which they said included paying the former priest $50,000 to keep quiet about the abuse after he left the priesthood.
At issue in yesterday's Supreme Court opinion was whether the plaintiffs could argue that the diocese was guilty of outrageous conduct and had recklessly inflicted emotional distress. The court considered whether the diocese could be held responsible even though church officials had no direct knowledge that McKeown was molesting these boys in particular.
It's the first court decision in the nation to hold that reckless infliction of emotional distress does not have to be based on conduct directed at a specific person or take place in the presence of the plaintiff, said Vanderbilt University Law School professor John Goldberg.
However, he and other legal experts don't anticipate any broad implications from yesterday's decision because plaintiffs must meet very high legal standards to prove ''outrageous conduct'' lawsuits, making such cases rare.
Goldberg said the decision is in line with a number of state Supreme Court opinions that give as much weight to emotional injuries as physical ones.
''The Tennessee Supreme Court turns out to be at the forefront among the courts in the nation of giving protection to people's emotional well-being,'' he said.
The plaintiffs claimed that they suffered emotionally as a result of the abuse that took place after the former priest moved into the mobile home park where they lived.
McKeown is serving a 25-year sentence for the abuse of one of the victims in this case. Police said he molested numerous others but the statute of limitations had expired.
Reviving the lawsuit not only will help the victims in this case heal but also will go a long way toward finding out how McKeown was able to abuse so many boys with impunity, said David Clohessy, national director for the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
''You can speculate about whether or not bishops will start behaving more compassionately in the future, or you can stick with a proven method of protecting kids, and that is taking these men to court and therefore exposing them,'' he said. ''That we know works.''
Catholic Church suit continues
Jan. 30, 1999: Former Nashville priest Edward McKeown is arrested and charged with molesting a teenage boy. The former priest served in several parishes across Tennessee from 1970 to 1989. He also taught at Nashville's Father Ryan High School and directed Catholic youth organizations here and in Chattanooga. He left the priesthood in 1989.
June 17, 1999: McKeown is sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting and raping a Nashville boy. In court, a prosecutor said the former priest had molested some 30 boys over more than two decades but the statute of limitations had expired.
Jan. 19, 2000: John Doe 1 and his mother file suit against McKeown, the Catholic Diocese of Nashville and Metro government. Metro Nashville is named because police dropped a 1995 investigation of McKeown and because the boys' families claimed Metro Juvenile Court officials had been warned he was a pedophile.
Jan. 20, 2000: John Doe 2 and his mother file suit.
June 20, 2001: Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Walter Kurtz dismissed the lawsuits, saying the abuse occurred long after McKeown was forced to leave the priesthood.
Sept. 22, 2003: The Tennessee Court of Appeals upholds Kurtz's decision and sides with the diocese.