Supreme Court to Hear Abuse Case

Associated Press, carried in Duluth News Tribune [Madison WI]
November 24, 2004

MADISON - The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear a lawsuit filed by a group of people who say a Milwaukee priest sexually assaulted them decades ago.

The decision creates the possibility the court will revisit a decision it issued in the 1990s that has been interpreted to give churches immunity from negligence lawsuits on First Amendment grounds.

Ten people filed suit against the Milwaukee Archdiocese, St. John the Evangelist Church and two insurance companies, claiming they were abused by the Rev. George Nuedling, who is now dead, between 1960 and 1980.

The group alleges the archdiocese and the church were negligent and committed fraud because they knew Nuedling was abusing them and didn't protect them from him.

But the 1st District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in July that the group had failed to file its lawsuit before the statute of limitations had expired.

Former state law required victims to file suit within five years of an assault. Members of the group filed their first complaints in 2002, according to court records and the appeals court decision.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said, "We welcome the opportunity to present information to aid the court in its deliberation and review." She referred legal questions to archdiocese attorneys, who did not return messages from the Associated Press on Tuesday.

Attorney Jim Smith, who represents the group that filed the suit, also did not return a message.

In its decision, the appeals court noted the state Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment, which guarantees separation of church and state, prevents negligence claims against a religious body.

The Supreme Court said in a previous case that such claims would excessively entangle the courts with religion, violating the First Amendment.

Since the group filed its suit, new legislation has been signed into law extending Wisconsin's statute of limitations in civil child sexual assault cases by allowing accusers to file actions before age 35. The legislation, approved last year, was in response to the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church.


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