Sexual abuse proceedings against the Catholic Diocese of Memphis can now continue following an order issued today by the state's highest court.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the charges brought by Norman Redwing, a Memphis man who alleges he was sexually abused in the 1970s by Father Milton Guthrie, a now-deceased diocesan priest, can continue by effectively detonating one of the church's prized legal tactics — dubbed ecclesiastical abstention doctrine — which conveniently obstructs legal discovery by shielding the church behind First Amendment protections and allow it to party like it's 1399.
From a press release (bold emphasis Pith's) released today by the Supreme Court:
The Diocese asked the trial court to dismiss the case, arguing that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine deprives state courts of jurisdiction over cases against the church and that the victim’s claims were barred by statute of limitations. The Supreme Court determined that religious organizations are not shielded from suits involving property rights, torts (like Redwing’s claims) and criminal conduct as long as the court can resolve the dispute by applying neutral legal principles and is not required to rely on religious doctrine to decide the case.
Typically, victims have up to one year after the abuse occurred to file a lawsuit, unless there are mitigating circumstances. Redwing claims that the Diocese knew that Father Guthrie had sexually abused minors. He also claims that the Diocese purposely misled him about its knowledge of Father Guthrie's conduct and its responsibility to supervise Father Guthrie. The Supreme Court reversed a divided Court of Appeals ruling and reinstated the trial court’s original ruling. The Court ruled that the dismissal was premature because at this point insufficient evidence had been provided to substantiate Redwing’s claim of fraudulent concealment.
In effect, by removing religion from the equation altogether, the court has ruled that Redwing's case should play out.
In a joint statement, members of the Tennessee chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) hailed the ruling as a breakthrough.
"This gives victims of clergy sexual abuse their first huge victory in holding the Catholic Church in the state of Tennessee accountable for crimes against children," they wrote.
SNAP also voiced it support for legislation proposed by Rep. Richard Floyd, who when he's not advocating violence against transgendered citizens, is seeking to abolish the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse.
According to the Commercial Appeal, the diocese has trotted out an old aphorism from the Bush Administration, one whose usage typically denotes catastrophic failure:
Spokesmen for the Memphis Diocese acknowledged that mistakes were made, but said the church has taken steps to keep them from happening again.
By this logic, Catholics who merely tell their priests that they've already taken steps to keep them from, say, banging the neighbor-lady (with contraception) or lighting small animals on fire are absolved from the sacrament of confession. If only secular law worked that way...