Archdiocese Asks State High Court to Dismiss Assault Suits

By Pat Schneider
Capital Times [Wisconsin]
April 25, 2007

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee told the state Supreme Court that child sexual assault victims who believe they've also been deceived by a church coverup need to bring that claim to court within a few years of being assaulted.

Attorney John Rothstein, representing the archdiocese, said Tuesday that such victims have a "duty of inquiry. The plaintiffs can't wait around until the facts find them."

Rothstein was asking the court to uphold the dismissal in Milwaukee County Circuit Court of four lawsuits — now consolidated in a single case — seeking monetary damages from the archdiocese, which the plaintiffs claim fraudulently concealed priests' history of child molestation.

Charles Linneman, a plaintiff in the case being heard by the court, was brought close to tears by the assertion that, as a teenager, he should have recognized the Catholic Church was concealing his abuser's history.

"I was raised to see the church as a good thing," Linneman said following oral arguments before the court at the Waushara County Courthouse. "I didn't expect it was an organization that covered up things and did things dishonestly."

Linneman, now 38, said it was only in the past four or five years that he realized the coverups the church had engaged in to hide molesting priests.

Clergy abuse advocates hope the case now before the state Supreme Court will be the one to break down the barrier to civil actions against churches erected by the court in the 1990s.

"Wisconsin is the last state to allow victims of clergy sexual abuse to bring their cases to court," said Peter Isely, Midwest coordinator for SNAP, Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests.

Should the plaintiffs in this case prevail, it would open the door for other clergy abuse victims to bring suit, or renew actions previously dismissed, against churches for shielding sexual predators.

A series of lawsuits against the Madison Diocese, including several with multiple plaintiffs, were dismissed in the mid-1990s after the Supreme Court ruled that claims of clergy sexual abuse against children were subject to the same statute of limitations — or deadline to file a claim — as were other damage claims.

The case now before the court asks justices to rule that the clock on the statute of limitations on a fraud claim — six years — not start ticking until a victim becomes aware of the fraud.

Such an open-ended vulnerability to claims would affect every employer in the state, Rothstein cautioned the court.

"Is it your argument that this is bad for business?" Justice Ann Walsh Bradley asked him.

"Don't you think it's good to protect everybody from fraud?" Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson queried.

Attorney Marci Hamilton, arguing for the plaintiffs, said expecting a sex assault victim who is a minor to ferret out evidence of a conspiracy to defraud "is an unreasonable burden to put on a child in the circumstances they found themselves in."

The American public learned of the Catholic Church's practices of transferring priests away from allegations of sexual misconduct in 2002, when a scandal in Boston broke, setting off a chain of accusations and revelations that brought new practices in the church, millions of dollars in damage settlements and new laws to protect children.

Rothstein told the justices they would have to overrule the court's past decisions on clergy abuse cases in order to let this one proceed.

But Hamilton argued that evolution of the law — recognizing separate claims against employers for the actions of employees, for example — along with better understanding of child sexual abuse and past practices of the Catholic Church, would allow the court to legitimize the fraud claim brought in this case while letting past decisions stand.

Past cases restricting claims of liability against the Catholic Church have revolved around statutes of limitations and separation of church and state issues regarding negligence in the supervision of church employees.

The case now before the court involves former priests Siegfried Widera and Franklyn Becker. The plaintiffs say the Milwaukee Archdiocese knew they molested other children before they molested them.

Widera had been convicted of criminal sexual misconduct with a child before he abused the plaintiffs in this case. But it was not until a California lawsuit involving Widera in 2004 unearthed Milwaukee Archdiocese documents detailing an attempt "to keep a lid on" a new assault allegation "so no police record would be made" that the plaintiffs say they understood how the church had defrauded them by concealing his history.

The notorious Widera, implicated by more than 40 alleged victims, jumped to his death from a Mexico hotel balcony in 2003 as police were closing in.

Justice Bradley on Tuesday read the litany of placements — from one parish to another, year after year — that the plaintiffs say the archdiocese made to keep Widera one step ahead of the allegations against him.

The archdiocese knew that Becker, too, had previously "sexually molested numerous children" before abusing him, Linneman says.

Justice Jon Wilcox was concerned that the court not act to override 2004 legislation that says civil actions stemming from claims of clergy sexual abuse must be brought by the time the plaintiff is 35 years old.

Claims based on conduct preceding the law are "legal cul-de-sacs," Rothstein said.

"Is the archdiocese taking the position that there is no redress for these claimants?" Justice David Prosser Jr. asked.

That's about the size of it, Rothstein replied. "It may be unfair," he said, but he added that the Legislature indicated by setting an age limit that it did not intend that a claim could be brought decades after an alleged assault.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.