Court rules plaintiffs can sue Archdiocese in clergy abuse cases

The Wisconsin Supreme Court today cracked open the doors to the courthouse for plaintiffs who say they were sexually abused as children by clergy.

The court tacked on a new codicil to the complex case law that, until today, put Wisconsin alone among U.S. states in denying access to civil court to adults who say they were molested by clergy when they were children. Justices said plaintiffs who allege that fraudulent representations put them in the hands of molesting priests can sue the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The court upheld part of a Milwaukee County Circuit Court ruling that said too much time had elapsed since the alleged sexual assaults to bring claims of negligent supervision against the archdiocese, but in a precedent-setting decision, justices also ruled that plaintiffs can bring claims of fraud against the church. The clock on the claims of fraud starts “when the plaintiffs discovered or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have discovered, that the Archdiocese’s alleged fraud was a cause of their injuries.”

Just when the plaintiffs should have come to that realization will be decided by the circuit court, to which justices remanded the case. The case could still be dismissed if “undisputed facts demonstrate that the claims for fraud accrued more than six years prior to the dates on which the claims were filed,” Justice Patience Roggensack wrote for the court in a unanimous portion of the decision. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, concurred in part and dissented in part.

A scandal over decades of sexual abuse by priests, and the church’s role in concealing it, broke in Boston in 2002, leading to a precedent-setting acknowledgement of the problem by U.S. bishops and the creation of programs to prevent abuse in every diocese in the country.

Reactions: John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 sued the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2005, claiming that they had been sexually abused from 1973 to 1976 by now-deceased priest Siegfried Widera after he had been criminally convicted of a sexual assault of a child of which church officials were aware. The Does came into contact with Widera when, after his criminal conviction, the archdiocese transferred him St. Andrew’s Parish in Delavan.

Milwaukee Archdiocese documents revealed in a California case against Widera show that after confronting him about an assault at St. Andrew’s, church officials said they would “try to keep the lid on the thing so no police record would be made,” and also that they knew that the mother of the boy “feared reprisals from the Church if she would go to the police.” The archdiocese transferred Widera to California in 1976.

Charles Linneman filed suit in 2005, claiming he was abused in 1982 by priest Franklyn Becker while he was an altar boy at St. Joseph Church in Lyons. The contact continued after the archdiocese transferred Becker to a Milwaukee parish, according to his lawsuit.

The Catholic Church in Wisconsin has paid out millions of dollars in settlements to plaintiffs who accused priests of sexual molestation of children. Scores of other lawsuits, including several against the Diocese of Madison, were dismissed because state law, until today, held that actions brought in recent years claiming abuse decades ago were time-barred.

Today’s decision by the court opens the door to plaintiffs who have a likelihood of proving that the church knew about past abuse by the accused and gave the accused unsupervised access to children to bring suit against church officials.

“We’re very excited to have the chance to give these kids, now adults, their day in court in cases where evidence of fraud was developed pre-suit,” said attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented hundreds of clergy sex abuse victims across the country.

Peter Isely, Midwest coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said today’s court decision gets to the heart of the issue SNAP has been pressing. The Catholic Church “intentionally defrauded the citizens of Wisconsin by putting out dozens of dangerous men through our parishes, schools and communities,” he said.

Linneman said today he was “relieved” by the ruling. “It’s been a battle just to get in court,” he said. “Hopefully this will open the door to a lot of other cases and a lot of other victims will get justice. I’m pretty elated about that.”

The ruling will not bring a chance for justice for as many clergy sex abuse victims as they had hoped, Anderson and Isely said.

By upholding, and reaffirming, case law on the statute of limitations for claims of negligent supervision, the court has locked the courthouse door to many other victims, they said.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other victims for whom the door is still shut,” Anderson said. “The court just handed this problem to the Legislature.”

The court said in its decision that the controlling case law held that the clock on the statute of limitations for negligent supervision starts ticking at the time of the last incident of sexual assault.

“This makes Wisconsin a very bad place for children and a very good place for pedophiles,” Isely said.

Advocates for the rights of clergy sex abuse victim have argued long and hard to the courts and the Legislature that children often cannot realize the extent of the harm of sexual molestation until well into their adulthood.

Anderson said Abrahamson’s dissent, in which she said the court relied on the wrong precedents and that she would have preserved all the claims, articulated his concerns.

“Decades have elapsed since the alleged wrongful conduct of the Archdioceses occurred,” Abrahamson wrote. “But that should not prevent the plaintiffs from having their day in court.”

The archdiocese will have its legal counsel prepare for the next steps in the legal process, said Kathleen Hohl, communications director for the archdiocese.

“The Archdiocese of Milwaukee remains committed to continuing our work on the issue of clergy sexual abuse,” Hohl said in a statement today. “We apologize to all those who have been affected by clergy sexual abuse, especially victims-survivors and their families. We also renew our promise to protect the children and young people in our community from abuse.”

In an interview, Hohl pointed to the archdiocese’s mediation program as one way it has tried to provide some recompense to victims of clergy sex abuse. “We’re serious about it,” she said.

Pat Schneider