Appeals Court Upholds Dismissal of Suits against Archdiocese

By Ryan J. Foley
The Associated Press, carried in Grand Forks Herald
August 29, 2006

Madison, Wis. - Four people who accused two Roman Catholic priests of abusing them in the 1970s and 1980s cannot sue the Archdiocese of Milwaukee because the statute of limitations has expired, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The District 1 Court of Appeals upheld a Milwaukee County judge's earlier ruling dismissing the lawsuits, which alleged fraud and negligent supervision against the archdiocese.

Advocates for victims of clergy abuse had hoped to use the case to validate their argument that statutes of limitations in fraud cases do not begin until the claims are discovered. A ruling in their favor could have led to new lawsuits in cases where church leaders quietly transferred priests who had committed sex offenses to new parishes.

Three John Does claimed they were sexually abused between 1973 and 1976 by a now-dead priest, Siegfried Widera. Another man alleged he was abused by then-priest Franklyn Becker in 1982.

All of the accusers argued the archdiocese defrauded them by concealing both priests' history of sexual abuse against children and was negligent in continuing to employ them.

They argued the six-year statute of limitations should not have started until recently, when they discovered more details about the priests' histories. The accusers claimed, for instance, they did not know until 2004 that Widera was convicted of sexual perversion with a teenager in 1973 and transferred that year to a Delavan parish from Port Washington.

But the appeals court, in an unanimous 3-0 ruling Tuesday, said the clock started ticking on the date of the last sexual assault against each victim. The victims should have known they were injured when they were assaulted, the court said, citing a 1997 ruling by the state Supreme Court.

"They thus had a corresponding 'duty to inquire' into the cause of their injuries no later than the date of the last sexual assault, which would have revealed the facts they now assert make the Archdiocese liable," Judge Ralph Fine wrote for the appeals court.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Michael Guolee made a similar argument in dismissing the cases last year.

Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn. lawyer who represents the accusers, said he was disappointed by the ruling, which he vowed to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"This outcome, as written today, protects predators and those that protect them instead of our children and those in need of protection. Wisconsin is a dangerous state when the law is written and interpreted this way," he said. "This gives the archdiocese and the bishops a free pass to conceal, to lie and deceive."

Children cannot be expected to know a priest's actions are wrong because they are taught to trust priests, he said.

"All they knew was that they were kids and he was a priest," Anderson said. "I don't know how (the judges) can reconcile that."

Peter Isely, a Milwaukee leader in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the high court would be urged to overturn its 1997 ruling, which has shielded the Catholic church in Wisconsin from many lawsuits.

Courts in California have allowed victims of Widera and Becker to sue the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, he said, but "the victims here don't have any recourse," Isely said.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said church leaders remain concerned about clergy abuse.

"Today's ruling by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals was an issue of applying case law to pending cases," she said in a statement. "This ruling is a legal decision that does not affect the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's commitment and desire to work with victims/survivors to seek resolution."

Widera was facing 42 counts of child molestation in California and Wisconsin when he died in 2003 after leaping from a hotel balcony in Mexico while being questioned by police.


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