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The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that a man who alleged sexual abuse by a priest when he was a boy could not sue the Connecticut diocese that sent the clergyman to New Mexico. Tercero v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, Conn., No. 2002-NMSC-018. The justices ruled, 3-2, that by the time the alleged abuse occurred, contact between the diocese and its priest was so slight that New Mexico’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over the East Coast diocese “would offend traditional notions of due process.” Navoro Tercero charged that Father Barney Bissonnette molested him between 1966 and 1968 while the priest was in the Santa Fe, N.M., archdiocese. Bissonnette had arrived in New Mexico three years earlier from Norwich, Conn., in order to receive treatment for pedophilia at a Jemez Springs clinic, Via Coeli. In 1964, he returned to Connecticut. According to the court, although Bissonnette was not removed from the Norwich diocese, its bishop told him he could no longer be a priest there. The bishop later told Via Coeli and Bissonnette that the priest should find an assignment from a “benevolent bishop.” After working in Duluth, Minn., Bissonnette returned to New Mexico, where he received a parish assignment. In 1968, he was dismissed for sexual molestation, the court said. In reversing the appellate ruling that favored Tercero, the New Mexico Supreme Court said this case did not meet the demands of the state’s long-arm statute — that the Connecticut diocese was shown to have transacted business within New Mexico or committed a tortious act there. Writing for the majority, Justice Petra Jimenez Maes repeatedly noted the ever-dwindling connection between the priest’s home diocese in Connecticut and his life in New Mexico for both the business-transaction and tortious-act questions. “[D]uring the actual time frame in which the alleged abuse occurred,” Maes wrote, “the purposeful initiation of relevant activity by the [d]iocese was virtually nonexistent.” In a dissent, Justice Pamela B. Minzner, joined by Joseph F. Baca, argued that a reasonable jury could have concluded that by encouraging Bissonnette to find a “benevolent bishop,” the diocese used Via Coeli as an agent to find work for the priest. And, she wrote, Bissonnette remained a member of the Norwich diocese. By authorizing the priest’s treatment at Via Coeli, paying his expenses and permitting him to take the Santa Fe assignment, the diocese maintained an ongoing relationship with Bissonnette, the dissent said. Tercero’s lawyer, Daymon Ely of Albuquerque, N.M., said the court’s split decision indicated a reasonable jury could have come to a different conclusion. But, he said, the majority chose to follow a preponderance of the evidence standard instead. Still, he took some solace in the three-year interval between the oral argument and the release of the decision. “I think they did struggle with it,” he said. “Clearly they did.” Defense attorney Larry D. Beall of Albuquerque’s Beall & Biehler could not be reached for comment.

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