Judge dismisses two archdiocese abuse claims

(JS Online.com) The judge in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee bankruptcy case dismissed two sex abuse claims on Thursday, the latest in a string of victories for the archdiocese, and is expected to rule on four others early next year.

Abuse victims and their attorneys blasted the latest efforts by the archdiocese to throw out claims as “wrong, legally and morally.”

“It’s totally contrary to everything Archbishop Listecki said he would do,” said attorney Jeffrey Anderson, a reference to Jerome Listecki’s comments when the bankruptcy was filed in January 2011 that victims would be compensated fairly.

Archdiocese attorney Frank LoCoco said the archbishop “has been clear from the beginning” that he intended to pay only those claims that were required by law.

Victims accuse the archdiocese of defrauding them by moving abusive priests from post to post without warning parents that they were a danger to children.

The archdiocese issued a statement Thursday denying the fraud and saying “the only way to reach a resolution in the Chapter 11 is to have a definitive answer on the number of eligible claims.”

The archdiocese’s efforts to dismiss large numbers of claims are a first for Catholic church bankruptcies. And the strategy, if successful, could limit the size of any settlement reached with victims, who represent the largest number of creditors in the Milwaukee bankruptcy.

The archdiocese argues it should not have to compensate claims beyond the six-year statute of limitations for fraud; cases involving religious order priests, schoolteachers and others it does not consider its direct employees; and those who negotiated previous settlements with the archdiocese.

The statute of limitations for fraud starts ticking not when the abuse occurred, but when the victim had reason to suspect he or she was defrauded.

The archdiocese argues that the deluge of local and national news stories on the sex abuse crisis since 2002 should have been enough to alert victims to potential fraud.

Attorneys for victims argue that reports on some abusers were not made public until years later and that the archdiocese withheld information about abusers from victims.

“You can’t file a fraud lawsuit without evidence,” victims’ attorney Michael Finnegan said Thursday.

In dismissing two claims Thursday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley ruled that one failed to show fraud – there was no evidence the priest had abused anyone else – and that the other had reason to suspect fraud years earlier but did not act on it.

But she said they could be reconsidered if the state’s statute of limitations on child sex abuse changes.

Details of the cases were not available, as five of the six claims argued Thursday were filed under court seal. Two of the claims involved notorious serial abusers Franklyn Becker, Richard Nichols and George Nuedling.

Kelley called for additional briefs on two of the four remaining claims, including information on whether the archdiocese mislead victims about their abusers’ histories when they reported their cases to the church. She is scheduled to take up the four claims at a Jan. 24 hearing.

Kelley has ruled in two previous cases that the church’s objections raise issues of fact that must be resolved at trial.

One of the victims voiced disappointment in the church’s efforts to throw out survivors’ claims.

“What strikes me is the disconnect between the spirituality the church espouses and the technicalities of the legal process,” said Leonard Sobczak, former chair of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, who was sexually abused by Nichols at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in the 1960s. “There’s this strict adherence to the law without any thought to what Jesus would do,” Sobczak said.

The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 protection as a way to resolve its outstanding sex abuse claims. From the beginning, the two sides have pursued divergent strategies, with the archdiocese moving to throw out victims’ claims and the creditors pursuing church assets that could be used to pay them.