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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published November 21 2013

Suit filed against Crookston diocese claims priest sexually abused White Earth man

CROOKSTON, Minn. – 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.

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.

“He said he came forward to help others, that he didn’t want to happen to them what happened to him,” Anderson 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.

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.