Diocese denies obstruction of justice in abuse suit

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Diocese of Green Bay will "vigorously defend itself" against allegations of obstruction of justice and will demonstrate its innocence when a pending civil abuse case moves on to a jury trial, diocesan officials said in a Dec. 21 news release.

The obstruction of justice claims were made Dec. 20 by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. In its release, SNAP claimed that Green Bay bishops ordered destruction of evidence in clergy sex abuse cases.

According to the diocese, attorneys for Troy and Todd Merryfield submitted a "motion to prevent document destruction" in Outagamie (Wis.) Circuit Court on Nov. 15. Attorneys for the Diocese of Green Bay filed a brief in opposition to the plaintiffs' motion Nov. 23.

"The Diocese of Green Bay has reported every credible allegation of sexual abuse against a minor by a member of the clergy to the appropriate district attorney of the county in which the alleged incident occurred," the diocese stated in its release. "The diocese cooperated completely with law enforcement authorities in every one of those cases."

The statement added: "In order to be in compliance with the Federal Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act of 1996, the diocese cannot, and does not, retain psychological reports on priests, deacons and employees in personnel files. After civil litigation was commenced against the diocese in January 2008, at no time were documents pertinent to the lawsuit disposed of."

The Diocese of Green Bay has had a record retention policy and schedule since 2006, noted the statement. The policy "applies to all documents created or received by all departments within the diocese. The purpose of the policy and schedules is to ensure that there is a comprehensive and timely review of documents that should be maintained and preserved for specific periods of time and for documents that can be disposed of."

In the pending civil case in Outagamie County, brothers Troy and Todd Merryfield accused the diocese of fraud and sought punitive damages for being molested 32 years ago by then-Father John Feeney.

Feeney, a former priest of the diocese, was criminally convicted on Feb. 26, 2004, for his acts against the plaintiffs and is serving a 15-year sentence. Feeney, 83, was barred from priestly ministry on Dec. 15, 1986, and was removed from the priesthood on June 3, 2005.

The statement said the diocese "remains committed to reaching out to victims and survivors of clergy abuse."

Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay "has continually stated that he is willing to meet with victims/survivors, listen to their story and help them in their journey," it added. "Likewise, diocesan policies for keeping children safe are and will continue to be rigorous."

The policies include:

  • Mandated background checks and abuse prevention training of all staff and volunteers in parishes, schools and diocesan offices (approximately 21,000 people).

  • Barring from ministry any clergy who have a credible allegation of abuse of a minor against them.

  • Mandatory reporting of all credible allegations of abuse to local law enforcement authorities. This has ensured that due process within the legal system takes place.

"Year after year, the diocese has demonstrated its compliance with its policies, with national standards and adherence to state law," according to the statement.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here