MEMPHIS — The Tennessee Supreme Court is weighing a civil case against the Catholic Diocese of Memphis concerning allegations of child sexual abuse by a now-deceased priest during the 1970s, and the decision could influence the way similar disputes are judged in the future.
Norman Redwing sued the diocese in October 2008, claiming the Rev. Milton Guthrie sexually abused him from 1972 to 1974 while Redwing received counsel from the priest at Holy Names Catholic Church.
The suit does not name Guthrie, who died in 2002, as a defendant. But it does accuse the diocese of knowing that Guthrie was “a dangerous sexual predator” with an interest in young boys and failing to tell Redwing.
Redwing, now 50, was in his early teens when he claims the abuse took place. But he waited until just a few years ago, when he learned about the diocese’s alleged negligence, to file the lawsuit. Guthrie was never charged with criminal wrongdoing.
The diocese filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit at the trial court level, arguing that the statute of limitations on the sexual abuse claim had expired. Tennessee law says that Redwing had one year after he turned 18 to ask the diocese if it either knew of any past sexual abuse by Guthrie, or to sue the priest.
Then-Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey, who has since returned to practicing law as an attorney, denied the motion to dismiss, calling the statute of limitations harsh. However, the motion to dismiss was then granted by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in May 2010.
Redwing’s attorney, Gary Smith, asked the state Supreme Court to consider the case, noting that one of the three appeals court judges, Holly Kirby, dissented with her colleagues and said the lawsuit should move forward.
Arguments were held in April, and a written decision by the Supreme Court could come at any time. The high court’s decision is being closely watched because the statute of limitations has been a factor in other similar abuse negligence lawsuits against the diocese, some of which have been dismissed because the statute had expired.
Smith is challenging the statute of limitations, but he is also questioning the appeals court’s decision that the trial court had no jurisdiction based on the Ecclesiastical Abstention or Church Autonomy Doctrine. The doctrines protect the church from civil court disputes that hinge on church policy and administration, doctrine and practice. Smith argues that the church is unfairly using the abstention doctrine to shield and protect priests who have been accused of sexual abuse.
“Can they simply say you can’t do anything to us because we’re a church and we’re immune even if we are involved in the commission of a crime?” Smith said. “That issue has not been addressed by the Supreme Court in Tennessee.”
Diocese spokeswoman Suzanne Aviles declined to comment on the legal arguments, but she did say that no one in the diocese has access to children who has not been approved through an investigation process.
“As with all of these cases, we want justice and we want to act with mercy,” Aviles said Friday.
The Associated Press has a policy of not identifying sex abuse victims, but Redwing has gone public with the accusations and is allowing his name to be used.