Archdiocese Fought Hard in Court
Church Aided Victims, but Records Show It Also Sought Legal Costs

By Tom Kertscher and Marie Rohde
Journal Sentinel Online
April 14, 2002

In the early 1990s, even as the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was getting credit for an innovative program to help heal the wounds of sexual abuse by priests, the archdiocese continued to play legal hardball with some victims.

Archdiocesan lawyers put victims and their families through lengthy depositions, moved to collect legal costs from the plaintiffs and sought to place some case files under seal to protect them from public scrutiny.

These actions come to light after thousands of pages of court records in the Effinger cases were opened to public view by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Hansher on April 4. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently filed a motion to unseal those records.

Joe Cerniglia sued the Milwaukee Archdiocese in 1993 over abuse by a priest while Cerniglia was an altar boy.
Photo/Mary Jo Walicki

Joe Cerniglia remembers the strain on his family after he sued the archdiocese and Father William Effinger in 1993, claiming Effinger sexually abused him.

In the case, the church conducted depositions with Cerniglia, his parents, his two brothers, his former wife and a couple of friends, including what Cerniglia called a "long and painful" deposition of his mother.

"She came out of there feeling like it had happened all over again. It was a form of revictimization. The archdiocese didn't have to do that," Cerniglia said in an interview last week.

Cerniglia's lawsuit was dismissed in October 1994, after a Milwaukee County judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. The archdiocese then took the rare legal step of moving to collect $4,000 in legal costs from Cerniglia. He didn't discover the $4,000 lien against him until a few years ago, when he checked his credit.

David Borowski of Milwaukee, Cerniglia's first attorney in the legal action against Effinger, said large corporations almost never seek costs from an individual, particularly after winning a case.

"In my opinion, they were trying to stick it to (Cerniglia) and to get in one last shot," he said.

Archdiocese spokesman Jerry Topczewski said Sunday that Archbishop Rembert Weakland could not be reached for comment and has not commented on past legal cases.

"It's difficult to rehash old cases in the media," he said. "Father Effinger had a number of victims that were well-documented years ago when they came to light. All of those victims were victims of terrible crimes, and all of those people should not have to face that again when they open up their newspaper or turn on their TV."

The archdiocese's lawyer, Matthew Flynn of Milwaukee, said the archdiocese "has always treated victims with a great deal of compassion in the depositions" and "had no choice but to defend the litigation" after Cerniglia rejected a settlement offer.

As for seeking the $4,000 in costs, Flynn said that is simply a practice of his law firm and that the archdiocese has never trued to collect such judgments.

Cerniglia never paid the $4,000.

A family friend

As Cerniglia grew up in Lake Geneva, one of the family's closest friends was Father Effinger, a priest at St. Francis DeSales. It was perfectly natural that when the family celebrated Easter at home in 1979, Effinger was there.

But that evening, Effinger did something he hadn't done before. He invited Joe, then 13, to spend the night with him at the rectory. That way, Joe, an altar boy, wouldn't have to get up so early to serve daily Mass with Effinger on Monday morning.

Cerniglia's mother agreed to the overnight stay, but from the pews that next morning, she immediately sensed something was terribly wrong when she saw her son standing stone-faced behind Effinger at the altar.

After Mass, Joe told his mother that Effinger had taken him from their home to a bar, where Effinger drank, and then gave Joe alcohol at the rectory before molesting him in his bedroom.

"We trusted him like you trusted a family member," Cerniglia recalled. "He was part of the family."

The Effinger case was reported in detail nearly a decade ago after Weakland removed Effinger as pastor of Holy Name Catholic Church in Sheboygan. Effinger had been assigned to the parish in 1979 after being removed from St. Francis DeSales.

Weakland admitted at the time, and later in depositions taken as part of one of the civil suits against Effinger, that he had been aware of allegations against Effinger for years. He traveled to Sheboygan to apologize to parishioners during a Mass at Holy Name Church in 1992.

"I deliberately kept it" secret, Weakland said in his deposition. "I didn't think it should be divulged at that time or it was helpful."

Weakland did not remove Effinger from the Sheboygan post until 1992 - 13 years after the Cerniglia incident. The beginning of the end came when a man who had been molested by Effinger as a teenager confronted the priest, recorded the conversation and took the tape to the archdiocese and WISN-TV (Channel 12).

Thousands of pages of court records in the Effinger cases - including a portion of Weakland's deposition - were sealed by court order in 1993 after some of the plaintiffs reached a settlement with the archdiocese.

While the now-unsealed documents provide some new details in the Effinger case, they mostly recount what Weakland knew and when he knew it - details that have been in the public record for years.

Less well-known is the church's legal tactics in these cases - even as the archdiocese was getting credit for Project Benjamin.

Battles in court

Weakland gained national attention for establishing the archdiocesan program in 1989, which was designed to provide support and healing for survivors of abuse within the church.

Believed to be one of the first such projects in the nation, it initially helped victims, fielded complaints and responded in other ways. It evolved into an archdiocesan office with detailed protocols for receiving complaints, conducting investigations, assisting victims, monitoring and getting treatment for offenders and providing other services.

While the church was promoting Project Benjamin, it also was fighting hard in court, as the Cerniglia case and others show:

  • In 1994, Flynn attempted to subpoena a reporter's notes from an interview with Cerniglia and his parents.

  • The archdiocese successfully petitioned the court to assess the cost of its attorney fees against at least two other accusers.

A woman identified under the pseudonym Susan Smith alleged that she was raped by Effinger at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Kenosha when she was 8 or 9 years old. Her case was dropped before it went to trial after the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that the church could not be held responsible for the actions of a priest.

A judgment assessing $10,199.39 was entered against her for the church's legal costs in the case. She could not be interviewed because her real name could not be determined.

A man who claimed in a 1993 lawsuit that he had been abused by Father Michael Neuberger at St. Boniface Catholic Church, a former north side parish, in the 1960s was ordered to pay the church $15,704.36 in costs. His name is not part of the court record.

  • The church sought to keep details of the cases out of the public eye by moving to have cases sealed - and in one case, documents were shredded, with Hansher's approval.

In that instance, the church was seeking to have its insurers pay claims that had been denied. While the practice is not unusual, Alan Lee, an assistant state attorney general, said it was questionable. "Generally, if it's been introduced in the court file, the retention rule applies," Lee said.

Hansher said he could not recall what documents were contained in the case files but acknowledged that a large amount of money was at stake.

Settlement rejected

Cerniglia, 36, who owns a home painting business, said the archdiocese offered to settle his lawsuit for $80,000, plus up to $25,000 for psychotherapy. He rejected the deal because he would not have been allowed to talk about the settlement and because the archdiocese refused his family's demand to meet with Weakland.

Cerniglia said Weakland, not long after the assault, had promised his mother that he would not place Effinger around children. After the priest was placed in the Sheboygan parish, his mother again confronted Weakland, who told her he made the decision because Effinger had undergone treatment, Cerniglia said.

Weakland had sent Effinger to Leo Graham, a psychologist used by the archdiocese to treat both perpetrators and victims.

"Exactly what happened is vague and will undoubtedly remain so," Graham's report states. "When the young man reported the incident, his father, although enraged, had the rare and God-given sense not to scream both to the police for justice and to heaven for vengeance."

After the allegations surfaced in Sheboygan, Effinger was convicted in 1993 of molesting a 14-year-old boy. He was also accused of molesting nine others. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and died there in 1996.

Peter Isely, a Milwaukee man who is a spokesman for a national group representing the victims of sexual abuse by priests, said the archdiocese is not being any more forthcoming now than in the past. The archdiocese has established a commission to review the organization's handling of allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Isely cited reports last week that two unnamed priests were removed from active ministry after past allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. At least one of the men was not among the six priests the archdiocese recently acknowledged had been accused of sex abuse in the past and still remained in active ministry.

"Not only are they not reporting such cases to civil authorities, they are not reporting cases of known sexual abusers to their own commission and continuing to mislead the public as to the actual numbers of sex offenders working in the Milwaukee Archdiocese," Isely said.

Cerniglia said he decided to finally talk about his case because he believes the church remains more concerned about protecting itself than victims of abuse.

"It's a crime of silence in the church, and it's much bigger than people realize," he said.

Related Coverage

- Keeping faith: Sexual abuse victim makes peace with past (4/14/02)


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