Dismissal of Abuse Suits against Milwaukee Archdiocese Upheld

The Associated Press, carried in Winona Daily News
August 30, 2006

Madison, Wis. (AP) — 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 a 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.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said she was still reviewing the ruling. Lawyers for the accusers did not immediately return phone messages.

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.


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