A Changed Church Can Ask When It Has Paid Enough

By Patrick McIlheran
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 29, 2006

After I first read the list of priests who should never be near children, I mainly was relieved not to recognize any names.

As the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese says it regularly updates the list on its Web site (, you're never off the hook. You think of priests you knew as a kid, especially popular ones - the guitar players, the ones who ran retreats: Please, not them.

It's one more cloud in the decades-long storm. The evil let in by this sexually abusive fringe of the priesthood, and the bishops who mishandled it, is only now clear. The worst pain was inflicted on victims, but the most widespread damage was to the faith of every Catholic.

Then came lesser consequences, lawsuits among them. The Milwaukee Archdiocese says it's already paid $11 million. About that much is on the line in 10 cases in California, where Father Siegfried Widera, busted here in the 1970s, went in the '80s and continued his predation. Milwaukee inadequately warned Californians, say plaintiffs.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan has warned Milwaukee Catholics that while the church's structure here probably will keep parishes from being seized in lawsuits, the cost could be bankruptcy.

This is the legal consequence of wrongdoing. Whether it is justice is less clear.

It is, to the extent it restores something to men broken by molesters. There's clearly some retribution, as well, for the church's earlier lack of remorse. Bishops should make personal restitution, said one victims' activist this month.

But Widera is dead. The archbishop at the time, William Cousins, died in 1988, and 15 of the 43 priests on the archdiocese's warning list are dead, too. If this is about holding bishops and priests accountable, the offenders are mainly removed, disgraced or gone to eternal judgment.

So it becomes more about making someone pay. The people, who suffered twice already when shepherds failed them and their faith was abraded by scandal, are left holding the bag.

How is this just? Plaintiffs' lawyers say the institution itself is at fault, but nothing in the church's structure - as distinct from particular bishops' practices - invited the abuse, other than that it ministers to sinners and is composed of them. For that, the faithful see their church beggared by vengeance-size suits.

The attorneys who turned this from restitution into retribution offer cockamamie reasoning. The church is rich, they say. But most of the property lies under churches or schools. The archdiocese is down to selling its headquarters and hoping insurers pay. If they don't - many haven't elsewhere - the payouts inevitably affect the church's charitable work.

Others contend only punishment will teach a lesson. Yet the church has plainly learned already. In Milwaukee, outside experts review every abuse claim. Nationwide, a single substantiated charge means a man is permanently out.

The results show. The real story of sexual abuse is that it appears to have fallen sharply since the 1980s. Even the recent surge of accusations overwhelmingly involves offenses before 1990 - as Widera's do. The authoritative independent report in 2004 concluded that, even accounting for victims waiting years to tell, the epidemic has been ended. The new measures and new leaders did the job.

Those new leaders see a changed situation. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, for instance, draws a distinction between the obligation to help the abused and opening the vault. "Most Catholics are . . . tired of being pillaged by certain plaintiffs' attorneys," he told one newspaper.

What prompted Chaput is still another cloud rolling in. Colorado pondered what California passed: a one-year "window" in which there would be no statute of limitations on suing. The opening brought more than 1,000 new allegations - almost none about abuse since 1990 and some dating to the 1930s.

Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado attorney who defends dioceses, points out it's almost impossible to contest these. The priests are usually dead, bishops dead, witnesses dead. "They function more like reparations," he says.

There's money in reparations, since new cases are scarce, so plaintiffs' lawyers have backed such "windows" in other states, Wisconsin included. This is one of the few ways in which Catholics aren't helpless.

There's no justice in lifting the statute of limitations in Wisconsin, and Catholics here should be unafraid to say so. Victims of abuse now can sue as late as age 35. Wisconsin doesn't shut out victims.

Compassion for victims does not require Catholics to stand silent as law is changed to let the retribution go on - especially now that the church appears to have closed the door on this evil.


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