Dismissal of Abuse Lawsuits Upheld
Accusers in Wisconsin Cannot Sue Archdiocese; Those in California Can

By Ryan J. Foley
The Associated Press, carried in St. Paul Pioneer Press
August 30, 2006

[Note from For more information on the Widera case with links to Milwaukee archdiocesan documents see Second Chances: Confidential Diocesan Records Show Church Leaders Repeatedly Allowed Known Pedophiles to Return to Ministry, by Rachanee Srisavasdi, Andrew Galvin, Tony Saavedra, and Chris Knap, Orange County Register (5/18/05); and Orange Diocese Gives Details on Sex Abuse: Documents Show How Officials Covered For, Transferred and Even Promoted Pedophiles, by William Lobdell and Jean Guccione, LA Times (5/18/05).]

Madison — In California, people who claim they were abused by former Milwaukee-area priest Siegfried Widera can sue the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for transferring him there in 1981 knowing he had a history of abuse.

Widera's accusers in Wisconsin cannot sue, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday, even though they have documents showing the archdiocese quietly transferred him from one parish to another after a 1973 conviction on sexual perversion with a teenager. It was after Widera's transfer to a church in Delavan when the abuse allegedly took place.

Advocates for victims of clergy abuse say the case illustrates how Wisconsin churches have been unfairly shielded from lawsuits while other states are allowing them to seek justice. They say they will appeal Tuesday's ruling to the state Supreme Court.

The District 1 Court of Appeals said three people who accused Widera of abuse between 1973 and 1976 while he was a priest in Delavan cannot sue the archdiocese for fraud and negligent supervision because the statute of limitations had expired. The court also tossed a similar suit brought by a man who claimed abuse by then-priest Franklyn Becker in a Milwaukee church in 1982.

A California appeals court in 2003 allowed a case against the archdiocese's handling of Widera to move forward, blasting church leaders for "sending a known pedophile into California." A trial there is pending.

"But the victims here don't have any recourse," said Peter Isely, a Milwaukee leader in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

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. The six-year statute of limitations should not have started until recently, when they discovered more details about the priests' histories, they argued.

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.

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."

Anderson said 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."

Isely said the high court would be urged to overturn its 1997 ruling, which has shielded the Catholic Church in Wisconsin from many lawsuits.

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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