by CHRIS ROGERS
One of the last remaining sexual abuse cases against the Diocese of Winona-Rochester may be headed to trial in Winona after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the alleged victim late last month.
The plaintiff in the case was around 14 years old and a student at St. Mary’s Catholic Church’s school in Winona in 1962 when Father Richard Hatch — who is now deceased — allegedly sexually assaulted him. The lawsuit accuses the diocese of negligence and claims that diocesan leaders knew about Hatch’s alleged pedophilia but allowed him to continuing working with children.
Last fall, Winona County District Court Judge Nancy Buytendorp ruled that there was not enough evidence to support the claim that the diocese knew Hatch was dangerous. She dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals overturned Buytendorp’s decision, writing that there is evidence the diocese knew about Hatch’s behavior.
The case hinges on a 1961 letter from Bishop of Winona Edward Fitzgerald to Hatch, in which the bishop chastises Hatch for not paying his debts and also for taking two teenagers along with him on a vacation to Florida. It reads:
“I regret very much that information has also come to me that you have apparently found it necessary to take a vacation to Florida. Certainly one who is deeply in debt is not justified in expending money in such a manner. In addition to that, reports have come to me that you have taken one or two teenagers with you in spite of the advice which I gave you at the time of your retreat.
“Since it seems impossible for me to impress fully upon you the seriousness of matters of this kind and also in regard to your finances, I shall find it necessary to suspend you from all priestly work if I receive any further reports concerning debts which are unpaid or the taking of teenagers with you on trips no matter what the objective may be.
“I sincerely pray that you will realize the seriousness of all of these matters and readjust yourself so that you may continue to avoid being a source of scandal to others.”
The alleged victim’s attorney, Patrick Noaker, pointed to this letter — with its reference to previous serious issues involving teenagers — as well as records that Hatch was later sent to a retreat center sometimes used to rehabilitate sexually abusive priests, as evidence that the diocese did know about Hatch’s alleged abuse. In her ruling, Buytendorp found the bishop’s letter and the purpose of Hatch’s stay at the retreat center too vague to conclude that the diocese had knowledge of the alleged abuse. “Plaintiff’s exhibits may demonstrate that diocese and St. Mary’s were aware of some ‘red flags’ regarding Fr. Hatch’s behavior. However, these red flags fall short of demonstrating that his sexual abuse of plaintiff was foreseeable,” Buytendorp wrote. “There is no evidence that points to prior sexual abuse by Fr. Hatch specifically or any other objectively reasonable indication of the specific danger that Fr. Hatch would sexually abuse [the] plaintiff.”
Noaker appealed Buytendorp’s decision. The attorney for the diocese, Thomas Braun, told the appellate court that the bishop’s letter referred only to financial improprieties and nothing else.
Actually, the letter seems to suggest that Hatch was previously reprimanded for inappropriate conduct with teenagers, Court of Appeals Judge Lucinda Jesson wrote in her decision. That provides enough evidence that this case should not have been dismissed before trial, Jesson and two other appellate judges decided. Courts are supposed to look at evidence in a light favorable to the plaintiff before deciding to toss a case out before trial, and looking at the letter in that light, “… a reasonable jury could find that it was foreseeable to the diocese that Father Hatch may have sexually abusive tendencies towards children,” Jesson wrote. It is a close call, and it should be up to a jury to decide, she ruled.
“My client — he was quite overwhelmed,” Noaker said of the alleged victim’s reaction to the new ruling. “When he heard that we had lost at the district court level he was devastated. This guy really just had a hard life. He’s had a lot of psychiatric problems related to this. He was devastated. And to find out that the court did in fact correct itself, he was overwhelmed. He just started crying.”
Braun and officials from the diocese were not immediately available for comment. In a 2016 interview when the case was filed, a spokesman for the diocese said, “Certainly with any case of sexual abuse of a minor there is great sadness and we certainly want to remember the victims. Our prayers are with them and the diocese wants to continue to move forward to support the victim.” The diocesan spokesman added, “It was a long time ago, and [Hatch] was only in the diocese a short time, but regardless if it was a long time ago, it’s always a tragedy when a case like this comes forward, and the diocese wants to continue to work vigorously to create a safe environment for children … We want to do everything we can to have a very safe diocese so that something like this never happens again to the young people we are obligated to protect.”
Noaker also accused St. Mary’s Church of negligence — in addition to the diocese — but the Court of Appeals reaffirmed Buytendorp’s decision to dismiss all claims against St. Mary’s Church. During arguments before the appellate court, Noaker admitted that he did not have evidence that church leaders at the parish level had access to the bishop’s letter or knew about Hatch’s alleged misconduct.
The diocese still has the option of asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the appellate decision. If the diocese does not petition the Supreme Court or if the Supreme Court declines to take the case, it will be set for a jury trial in Winona.
This case is one of only two alleged sexual abuse cases still pending against the diocese. The plaintiff — referred to in public records as John Doe 121 — filed this case under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, which temporarily lifted the statute of limitations and gave the victims of child sexual abuse from decades ago a three-year window to bring civil lawsuits. The case was filed shortly before that window closed in 2016.
Hatch passed away in 2005.