8,000 instances of abuse alleged in Archdiocese bankruptcy hearing

(Journal Sentinel) Sealed documents filed in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee bankruptcy identify at least 8,000 instances of child sexual abuse and 100 alleged offenders – 75 of them priests – who have not previously been named by the archdiocese, a victims’ attorney said Thursday.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Julie Wolf said she did not have enough information to respond to the assertion, made by attorney Jeffrey Anderson during a pivotal hearing before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley. Anderson represents about 350 of the 570 victim-survivors who have filed claims in the case.

But Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests speculated that some are likely members of religious orders, such as Capuchins or Franciscans. Order officials do not typically make public the names of their accused members, and the archdiocese claims it is not responsible for them, though they have historically helped to staff its parishes and schools.

“This is a public safety crisis, a child safety crisis that needs to be investigated,” Isely said at a news conference on the federal courthouse steps, surrounded by fellow survivors and reporters.

“We need to know who they are and where they are. How can there be 8,000 crimes committed by over 100 offenders and there be no accountability?” he said.

Kelley let stand, at least for now, two survivors’ claims that the church had sought to bar, arguing they were beyond the statute of limitations.

In the split decision, Kelley also granted the church’s motion for summary judgment, effectively dismissing a third claim in which a victim had signed a prior settlement agreement with the church.

In an emotional preamble to her ruling, before a packed courtroom, Kelley expressed a reverence for the Catholic Church and compassion for the victims, saying she was “brought to tears more than once” reading the accounts of the men and women who allege they were sexually abused as children by priests, deacons, nuns, teachers and others over the past 60 years.

“But I cannot let compassion be the basis for my decision. It must be governed by law,” Kelley said.

Archdiocese attorney Frank LoCoco acknowledged the gravity of the allegations at the outset of the hearing.

“This will be the most difficult professional decision you will ever make,” LoCoco told Kelley.

Kelley made it clear that her rulings applied to the three individual cases at hand, not broad classes of claims they may represent. Allowing the two claims to stand doesn’t guarantee they will be paid in the bankruptcy, only that the legal debate over when the statute of limitations begins ticking must be decided at trial.

The archdiocese had sought the dismissal of three claims involving two priests and a parish choir director who were accused of molesting boys in the 1970s and ’80s. Church lawyers argued that the cases were beyond the statute of limitations and involved a victim who signed a previous settlement agreement and a perpetrator – the choir director – who was not a direct employee.

Victims’ attorneys had characterized the church’s objections as a test case that, if successful, would have eliminated 95% of the claims in the bankruptcy.

Kelly disallowed the claim involving the prior settlement because the victim didn’t meet all of the criteria for voiding a signed agreement.

Much of the debate Thursday centered on how to apply the state’s six-year statute of limitations on fraud allegations. LoCoco argued that the clock began ticking at the latest in 2004, when the archdiocese posted its online list of 44 priests with substantiated allegations of abuse.

Anderson said the victims didn’t know they were defrauded until 2006 and 2009, when they learned, in some cases through documents released as part of a California settlement, that the archdiocese had lied to them about their abusers’ histories.

“When a few did go forward and asked questions, what were they told? Lies,” Anderson said.

Anderson raised the issue of the 100 additional accused offenders, culled from his own clients’ claims, as part of his defense of the claims.

The archdiocese has said that it turns over all new claims of allegations involving living priests to the appropriate district attorney’s office, though it is not clear whether that includes religious order priests and others it doesn’t consider its employees.

The victims were not identified in court or in the documents filed on the issues raised Thursday. The claims of all but about 30 victim-survivors are filed under seal as part of a court order intended to protect the identities of any victim seeking anonymity.

The three cases at issue Thursday involved:

The now-defrocked Father Franklyn Becker, who had served as pastor at Holy Family Parish in Whitefish Bay. The victim alleges Becker abused him between 1972 and ’74, when the victim was 13 to 16 years old.

Father David Hanser, also since laicized, who is accused of molesting a 7-year-old boy in 1977-’78 when he was associate pastor at St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield.

Robert Schaefer, then-choir director at St. Catherine Parish in Milwaukee. Schaefer is accused of repeatedly molesting a boy from 1976 to 1982, beginning when the boy was about 10 years old.

Becker and Hanser have well-established histories as serial sex offenders; both were laicized by the archdiocese and appear on its list of offender priests. At least one other man has accused Schaefer of abusing him as a teenager. Schaefer is not listed on the archdiocese’s website.