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  Sex-Related Claims against Diocese Nixed

By Pat Schneider
Capital Times (Madison, WI.)
January 6, 1995

Laura Nyberg won't have her day in court in her claim against the Catholic Diocese of Madison, at least not now.

Invoking the separation of church and state, Dane County Judge George Northrup on Tuesday dismissed Nyberg's claims against the diocese in a lawsuit alleging negligence for failing to properly supervise Gibbs Clauder, the priest with whom she had a sexual relationship in 1990 and 1991.

That means the diocese won't have to defend its claim that it knew nothing of Clauder's sexual conduct before Nyberg informed church officials in 1991.

Northrup did preserve Nyberg's claim against Clauder that he exploited a therapeutic relationship that began when he ministered to her as a hospital chaplain following her second miscarriage within a year.

David McFarlane, Nyberg's attorney, said he will appeal Northrup's ruling to the Court of Appeals. Whether the surviving claim against Clauder will be pursued separately is still being considered.

Nyberg said after Tuesday's ruling that she is determined to pursue an appeal. "We think it is important to get this on the record so that priests think twice about it. It's too bad the judge let employers off the hook, because that lets them keep looking the other way."

In dismissing claim after claim against the diocese, Northrup referred to "the troubled area in this case -- the extent to which the court gets so involved in religious affairs violates the establishment clause."

"This case raised many moral issues, many ethical issues, but that doesn't mean they are legal issues," Northrup said in delivering his decision to dismiss the claims against the diocese.

Northrup contrasted the claims of sexual misconduct in the Nyberg case, brought by an adult woman, with sexual misconduct cases involving minors, where violations of criminal laws are alleged.

The establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion or interfering in religious practices.

"There are areas of theology that courts are understandably reluctant to deal with," McFarlane said after the ruling. "But there are other issues that deal with religious involvement in the secular world -- in the real world. Priests and religious organizations are subject to the same laws as everyone else."

While acknowledging that there are differing opinions on where to draw the line, McFarlane maintained that Clauder's conduct falls clearly under civil law to which he and the church should be held accountable.

"There's no immunity by cloaking it in the name of the priesthood," said McFarlane. Donald Heaney, attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Madison, agreed that "there is no absolute barrier between church and state."

"Clerics have to obey traffic laws," said Heaney. "But no court is competent to define the role of a Lutheran minister, a Jewish rabbi or a Catholic priest."

Clauder acknowledged his relationship with Nyberg after she contacted diocesan officials about it. The diocese claimed it knew nothing about the pair's relationship until then.

Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy upon ordination, and the diocese argued that it should not be held responsible for Clauder's behavior because it was in such clear violation of his oath and duties.

McFarlane argued that it is not true that the diocese had no way of knowing of "Father Clauder's proclivities."

"Father Hebl did know and steps could and should have been taken," said McFarlane. He referred to an admission in pretrial testimony by John Hebl, pastor at St. Bernard's where Clauder was living, that he once came upon Clauder straddled over a female visitor, whom he had pinned to the floor.

That, said McFarlane, was compelling evidence that Hebl knew "something peculiar and likely sexual was going on." Yet no inquiries were made, said McFarlane. Nyberg is claiming that she was emotionally damaged by a relationship to which she could not freely consent because of the perceived power difference between a Roman Catholic priest and a parishioner.

Nyberg has helped found CASSANDRA, a local self-help group for woman who say they were sexually victimized by clergymen.

CASSANDRA member Maureen O'Gorman-Foster was critical of Northrup's ruling. "Judge Northrup really exhibited a Dark Ages mentality toward the issues of sexual misconduct and the exploitation of women," she said. "In effect, he's given individual priests prone to abuse their positions clear rein to do that. Even more destructive, he has released the Catholic Church of its responsibility to supervise these men and hold them accountable."

 
 

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