Court: Abuse Victims Can Sue Wis. Church Officials for Fraud

By Ryan J. Foley
Pioneer Press [Madison WI]
July 11, 2007

negligence, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The decision blocks lawsuits alleging the Catholic church negligently failed to supervise priests who molested young boys in past decades. Those claims must be filed within three years of the date of the last sexual assault under state law, the court said in a 5-2 decision.

But all seven justices agreed that victims can sue for fraud if they prove church officials transferred priests they knew were abusing boys to different parishes and falsely claimed the priests were not a danger. Lawsuits must be filed within six years of the discovery of fraud, the court said.

The ruling came in a case in which four men claim they were sexually abused by two Archdiocese of Milwaukee priests when they were boys in the 1970s and 1980s. The court ordered additional proceedings into whether they can sue the archdiocese for fraud but upheld the dismissal of their negligence claims.

Both priests were transferred to California, where they abused numerous other boys.

Peter Isely, Midwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the "historic decision" allows up to 12 lawsuits to move forward against Wisconsin church officials whose cover-up of abuse has come to light in recent years. He said he believes the ruling is the first time such a fraud claim has been allowed to proceed in the U.S.

"We are going to be able finally have the legal rights ... we need to get documents and force bishops to answer questions under oath as to their systematic policy of transferring into virtually every city and town in our state men and women that they new were child rapists and dangerous to the community," he said at a Milwaukee news conference.

But attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents the victims, called the ruling "a real mixed bag." His four clients are looking forward to proving their fraud claims, but many other victims will not be able to sue for negligence, which is easier to prove, he said.

In fact, a national advocacy group said the ruling means childhood victims of abuse perpetrated by priests, teachers, coaches and other adults in Wisconsin will continue to be barred from filing civil lawsuits as adults.

The National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children called on Wisconsin lawmakers to either eliminate the statute of limitations or enact a three-year window in which such victims can file civil suits. Other states, including California and Delaware, have passed such laws but attempts to do so in Wisconsin have failed.

The court's ruling "does not adequately protect children but in effect, protects the pedophile," said Ted Thompson, executive director of the St. Paul, Minn.-based group.

In the case at issue, victims say the archdiocese fraudulently claimed priests Siegfried Widera and Franklyn Becker were not a danger to children and had no history of molesting children when church officials knew otherwise.

Three victims say Widera abused them between 1973 and 1976. Church officials were aware he had been convicted of sexually molesting another child and a separate incident in which he molested an altar boy, the victims claim.

The fourth victim, a former altar boy, claims church officials knew Becker had sexually molested other boys before Becker abused him in 1982. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Patience Roggensack said negligence claims are barred because the three-year statute of limitations started ticking the day of the last assault. But the fraud claims can move forward if the victims show they did not discover the fraud until sometime in the last six years, she wrote.

"We cannot determine when the plaintiffs knew or should have known of the Archdiocese's alleged knowledge of the priests' past histories of sexual molestation of children," she wrote. "Therefore, their claims may or may not be time-barred ... depending on when the claims for fraud accrued."

In a partial dissent, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said the victims should be allowed to sue for the diocese's negligent supervision of the priests.

Diocese spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said church officials "respect the Supreme Court's decision and will abide by it."

"Our legal counsel will begin preparing for the next steps in the legal process," she said.


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