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New abuse suit filed against Crookston diocese; Accusations focus on priest with area reservation ties

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By Stephen J. Lee / Grand Forks Herald

CROOKSTON — A member of the White Earth Band of Chippewa sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Crookston on Thursday, alleging a priest working under the diocese’s authority sexually abused him when he was 8 and 9 years old on the White Earth Indian Reservation.

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Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul attorney who has won hundreds of millions of dollars suing Catholic dioceses in sex abuse cases over the past 20 years, held a news conference at the Polk County Courthouse in Crookston, where the lawsuit was filed Thursday.

He said he has information that the Rev. J. Vincent Fitzgerald, who died in 2009, sexually abused at least four young people from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s while serving as a priest on Indian reservations in South Dakota and Minnesota.

The four alleged victims include two within the Crookston diocese: a boy on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation near Bemidji in the 1970s and “John Doe 19” at White Earth in the mid-1980s. He also has information that Fitzgerald sexually abused two youths in the 1960s in South Dakota, Anderson said.

Anderson said church officials knew, or should have known, about Fitzgerald’s abuse before he was assigned to a parish on the White Earth reservation.

But Monsignor David Baumgartner, vicar general of the Crookston diocese, issued a statement claiming the diocese knew nothing previously of such allegations against Fitzgerald.

“Like anyone, we are appalled by the allegations made today, particularly as they have been lodged against a member of the clergy who was entrusted with caring for the spiritual well-being of his parishioners and especially the most vulnerable members of his congregation,” Baumgartner said Thursday. “We stand with all who want the facts of this matter known and justice done.

“Prior to the commencement of this lawsuit, the Diocese was unaware of any allegations against Father J. Vincent Fitzgerald, who served as parish priest at St. Ann’s Parish in Naytahwaush from 1983 to 1986. To the best of our knowledge, Father Fitzgerald was never accused of nor investigated for any allegations of misconduct during his time serving our Diocese.”

Fitzgerald was not a diocesan priest, but a member of the religious order of Oblates, which carried out ministry on the White Earth reservation and other reservations in the region.

‘An epidemic’

Anderson said his client, known in court papers as John Doe 19, asked that Anderson release little information about him. The man, now in his 30s and living in Minnesota, is suing the Crookston diocese and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Joining Anderson at the news conference was Lonna Hunter, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe who said she’s a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and now an advocate for other victims.

Sexual abuse of children on Indian reservations, and the accompanying high rates of suicide often linked to such abuse, is “an epidemic,” Hunter said.

It’s connected to historic “trauma” Indians have experienced, making it difficult for victims of child sexual abuse on reservations to come forward, she said.

Anderson said he has evidence the Crookston diocese, under Bishop Victor Balke, knew of Fitzgerald’s previous reported abuses when it approved his assignment to St. Anne’s parish in Naytahwaush on the White Earth reservation.

Fitzgerald was born in Troy Grove, Ill., and died in 2009 at 89 in Belleville, Ill., after 59 years as a priest in the Oblate order.

“Much of Father Fitzgerald’s ministry was serving as pastor in various parishes in Minnesota, where he was also involved in the Native American outreach ministry,” according to his obituary.

List of names

According to Anderson, Fitzgerald also served the Sioux Falls, S.D., diocese in 1968-69, worked for the Duluth diocese from 1970 to 1983 and served in the Crookston diocese from 1973 to 1978.

Anderson said Fitzgerald was assigned to St. Anne’s parish in Naytahwaush in 1984-85, part of a practice to move priests who had abused children to Indian reservations.

John Doe 19 was an altar boy at St. Anne’s and had “great admiration, trust, reverence and respect for the Roman Catholic Church,” including Fitzgerald as his priest, Anderson said.

As part of the lawsuit filed Thursday, Anderson asked the Crookston diocese to make public a list of all priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. He said he knows of five former priests in the diocese, including James Porter, who served in Bemidji in 1969-70, on the list.

Baumgartner said Thursday the diocese already has provided the list to Anderson.

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