Court Rebuffs Clergy Abuse Suit
It Upholds Milwaukee Judge's Finding on Statute of Limitations
By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Madison WI]
August 29, 2006
The latest effort to allow victims of clergy sexual abuse to sue churches in Wisconsin hit a roadblock on Tuesday, when a state appeals court upheld a Milwaukee County judge's decision to dismiss four cases.
Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he would appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Three men who said that the late Father Siegfried Widera abused them in the 1970s and one man who said that former priest Franklyn Becker abused him in the 1980s tried a new legal tactic by filing lawsuits that accused the Archdiocese of Milwaukee of fraud, saying the archdiocese concealed the priests' histories of sexual abuse before the plaintiffs were molested. The lawsuits said that the limits on how soon a person must file a civil suit should not apply because the plaintiffs did not learn of the fraud until relatively recently.
The state Court of Appeals panel in Milwaukee, however, ruled that the normal statute of limitations applied.
That disappointed victims' advocates and attorneys, who had been heartened by a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision last year. Although that ruling went against the abuse accuser who filed it, a number of justices indicated in their written comments a willingness to reconsider the broader legal impediments to such lawsuits.
Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions in the mid-1990s closed the door to most clergy sexual abuse lawsuits in the state, but the court's membership and the knowledge of sexual-abuse issues have changed since then.
"We had great hope that the court of appeals would see this the way we do," Anderson said. "The law as they have interpreted it today basically continues to protect the wrong class of people: the offenders and those that protect them."
Kathleen Hohl, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said in a statement: "The issue of clergy sexual abuse remains an important pastoral concern. . . . Today's ruling by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals was an issue of applying case law to pending cases. This ruling . . . does not affect the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's commitment and desire to work with victims/survivors to seek resolution."
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