The Minnesota Appeals Court ruled Monday that a lawsuit against the Diocese of Winona involving allegations of sexual abuse should be sent back to the Winona County District Court.
The lawsuit, filed by a man identified in court documents as John Doe 121, alleges that while he was a student at St. Mary’s Catholic Church during the early 1960s he was sexually abused by Father Richard Hatch. He filed suit in 2015, arguing that both the Diocese of Winona St. Mary’s Catholic Church acted negligently because they should have foreseen, or known about, Hatch’s sexually abusive tendencies toward children.
Hatch died in 2005. He was ordained in 1954 and served in three churches in Minnesota – St. Vianney’s in Fairmont, St. Leo’s in Pipestone, and St. James’ in St. James – from that time through 1962, according to court documents.
Reached Monday afternoon, Doe’s attorney, Leander James, said Doe was extremely grateful that the appellate court decided the way it did.
“We feel it did the right thing,” James said. “On our behalf and his behalf, we are very, very grateful for this decision and we think it is the right decision.”
The Diocese of Winona assigned Hatch to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in June 1962, where Doe was a student from first through eighth grades. According to the ruling, Doe regularly attended Mass and served as an altar boy and would also visit Father Hatch alone in the priest’s living quarters.
“It was during this time, in 1962 or early 1963, that Doe alleges Father Hatch sexually abused him on multiple occasions,” court documents state.
Hatch was removed from his position at St. Mary’s in June 1963.
Winona County District Court Judge Nancy L. Buytendorp granted a motion to dismiss and then a motion for summary judgment that ultimately resulted in all of the claims being dismissed. Doe and his attorneys appealed the ruling.
In the lawsuit, Doe and his attorneys argued that both institutions should have foreseen, or known about, Hatch’s sexually abusive tendencies toward children and did not have safeguards in place to prevent it. In Hatch’s priest file, there were several reprimands for transgressions involving the failure to pay debts he incurred. The file also contained letters that referred to “indiscretions” and “imprudence” other than a failure to pay debts, according to court documents.
In the appeals court ruling, Judge Lucinda E. Jesson wrote that the most concrete indication of these wrongdoings came from a 1961 letter to Father Hatch from the Bishop of Winona in which Hatch was reprimanded for two independent reasons: his poor financial habits and the taking of two teenagers with him on vacation.
On Monday, the appeals court ruled in an unpublished opinion that claims against the Diocese would be reversed be sent back down to the lower court. The dismissal of claims against St. Mary’s were reaffirmed.
The appeals court ruled that while St. Mary’s Church did not have access to the file containing numerous letters of reprimand as well as one of misconduct with teenagers, the Diocese did.
“The letter referenced previous ‘advice’ from the Bishop to Father Hatch on this topic and stated that he would be suspended if he took teenagers with him on trips, ‘no matter what the objective may be,’” Jesson wrote. “With this knowledge — that Father Hatch was not allowed to have youth with him on trips, that the Bishop was concerned about the ‘seriousness of matters of this kind,’ and that the Bishop stated that it seemed ‘impossible’ for him to convey to Father Hatch the significance of the matter — a reasonable jury could find that it was foreseeable to the Diocese that Father Hatch may have sexually abusive tendencies towards children.”