Church Cleared in Priest Sex Case; Minister Still Faces Lawsuit

By Phil Brinkman
Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)
January 4, 1995

The Catholic Diocese of Madison is not responsible for one of its priests having sex with a woman he was counseling, a Dane County judge ruled Tuesday. But Judge George Northrup said a lawsuit alleging sexual exploitation against the Rev. J. Gibbs Clauder can proceed.

The ruling left both sides claiming victory in the case, which revolves around sticky issues of government establishment of religion and the nexus between sex and power.

"I think the judge was indirectly telling the plaintiff that this kind of situation is a relationship issue, not a legal issue," said Richard Auerbach, Clauder's attorney.

David McFarlane, attorney for plaintiff Laura Nyberg, said he planned to appeal Northrup's decision exempting the diocese. But the complaint against Clauder is the basis of the lawsuit.

"This case is about the abuse of power by a professional and the exploitation of vulnerable victims," McFarlane said.

Clauder, the former hospital chaplain at Meriter Hospital, began providing pastoral counseling to Nyberg in November 1988, when she developed complications from a pregnancy, according to court records. He again counseled her the next month when she had a miscarriage, her second in one year.

According to the complaint, Clauder continued to counsel Nyberg after she left the hospital on such things as her self image, her marriage and her sexuality. The two eventually carried on a sexual relationship, which continued until June 1991, when Nyberg said she broke it off.

Nyberg alleges Clauder took advantage of her weakened state, violating a state law against sexual exploitation by a therapist. Nyberg's suit alleges emotional suffering, pain in her marriage and loss of faith.

"I have no community, I have no religious family to express my belief with anymore," said Nyberg, a lifelong Catholic.

In briefs filed on behalf of Clauder and the diocese, attorneys argued that Clauder was not a trained psychotherapist as defined by the law. Moreover, any counseling he might have provided as hospital chaplain ended when Nyberg left the hospital.

Attorneys also argued that the diocese is protected under the First Amendment, which prohibits establishment of religion. For the diocese to be held liable, they said, the state would have to establish standards for internal supervision by the church.

Northrup agreed, saying the suit called for an impermissible "entanglement" between church and state.

Nyberg had also contended the diocese should have known that Clauder, who had taken a vow of celibacy, had a proclivity toward sexual relations with women. Before he was assigned the hospital chaplaincy, Clauder was seen straddling another woman in his room at the rectory of St. Bernard Catholic Church. The woman had bitten him on the wrist. According to the diocese's brief, the priest who saw them thought the woman had just lost her temper, since it was Clauder who called for help.

But the biggest dispute in the case is consent. Attorneys for Clauder and the diocese contend Nyberg instigated the relationship, sending Clauder cards, gifts and poems and making suggestive statements.

While Nyberg denies she started it, her attorney says that's immaterial; as a therapist, Clauder had a professional obligation to reject her advances.

"I looked at it as a love relationship for a long time," Nyberg said. "But that still doesn't excuse (the fact) that he had the responsibility to know that I didn't have all the pieces to make that decision or give that consent.


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