LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Nevada Supreme Court has overturned a $500,000 jury award to a man who said he was groped in 1984 as a 13-year-old by a Catholic priest who had a history of sexual abuse in Wisconsin before being sent to a Las Vegas parish.
A lawyer for the man, who was known during the case as John Doe 119, expressed shock on Friday at the unanimous high court ruling that the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay didn’t have sufficient ties to Nevada to be held liable for the acts of the priest, John Patrick Feeney.
“It’s a kick in the gut. And a heartbreaker,” attorney Jeffrey Anderson said Friday from St. Paul, Minnesota. “We’re deeply saddened and disturbed at the decision.”
Anderson said he’d ask the seven justices to reconsider, but he described his legal options as very limited.
Deacon Tim Reilly, administration director at the Green Bay Catholic diocese, issued a statement welcoming the Nevada high court ruling. Reilly noted that the plaintiff in the case received an unspecified settlement from church officials in Las Vegas and said the case should never have gone to trial.
The diocese has rigorous policies for keeping children safe, he said.
A lawyer for the diocese, David Barron, said the court’s decision turned on the fundamental legal question of jurisdiction.
“If you’re an out-of-state defendant, you can’t just be brought in to be made to defend a case in a place where you don’t have personal jurisdiction,” Barron said. “That’s really was what the court had to determine. They said no.”
Another lawyer for the church, Peter Mazzeo, told the high court during oral arguments in January that holding the church in Wisconsin responsible for sex abuse by a priest after he moved to Las Vegas could put Nevada state agencies on the hook for wrongdoing by every doctor and lawyer they license.
When Feeney moved from Wisconsin to Las Vegas, he hadn’t been convicted of improper relationships, Mazzeo said.
It wasn’t until after Feeney was convicted in Wisconsin in 2004 of molesting two boys, defrocked and imprisoned that the Las Vegas man filed a civil lawsuit in 2008. Feeney was released from prison in 2011.
The alleged victim, now in his 40s and still living in Las Vegas, said Feeney sexually assaulted him in 1984 while he was a student at St. Francis de Sales parish in Las Vegas. His lawyer argued that Feeney’s conduct was well-known in Wisconsin, but the Green Bay diocese failed to notify officials in Nevada.
“The diocese kept information from law enforcement and moved Feeney to avoid prosecution,” Michael Finnegan, an attorney for the man, said Friday.
Mazzeo told the Supreme Court that diocese officials in Wisconsin didn’t ask officials in Nevada to take Feeney. He said Feeney moved first to Arizona and then San Diego before moving to Las Vegas.
Claims against Feeney, the Catholic Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas and the bishop of the diocese in Nevada were dismissed before trial was held in 2012 before Clark County District Court Judge Valorie Vega. The jury in Las Vegas didn’t find the Green Bay diocese committed fraud, and it didn’t award punitive damages.
But jurors ordered the church to pay $500,000 for the plaintiff’s pain, suffering and future medical expenses.
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