Clergy Abuse Victims Gain in Court Ruling

Journal Times [Milwaukee WI]
July 13, 2007

A step forward for his clients, a step backward for others yet to come.

That was how the attorney for four men who claim to have been sexually abused by Archdiocese of two Milwaukee priests described last week's state Supreme Court ruling. The justices ruled it's too late for the men to sue the Archdiocese for not properly supervising the priests but that they could still sue the local arm of the Roman Catholic Church for covering up those priests' abusive history.

The men claim they were molested in the 1970s and '80s. One, former Burlington resident Charles Linneman, has accused defrocked priest Franklyn Becker of abusing him when he was a teen. The others accused Siegfried Widera, who committed suicide in 2003 when law enforcement agents were close to apprehending him.

Jeffrey Anderson, the attorney representing these four men, worried the "mixed bag" of a decision would prevent other past victims of abuse from having their day in court.

All of the alleged abuses occurred more than 20 years ago, and the court was "concerned with protecting defendants from having to defend against stale claims, where so much time has passed ... that witnesses and relevant evidence may be unavailable."

But that distinction does not dilute the critical fact the men can finally have their day in court. That in itself is a major victory for victims, who have complained that Wisconsin law kept them on the outside looking in.

They deserve to pose their many questions. We'd like to know why, as the court's opinion states, the Archdiocese advised Widera "to tell people in Delavan that he was going on vacation rather than telling the truth." Transferred to California, he went on to abuse others.

Comments from one victims' advocate, Peter Isely, suggested the decision likely marks the state as the first to allow abuse victims to cite fraud in their lawsuits.

The ruling doesn't guarantee success in court. Fraud lawsuits could still be dismissed if it's determined victims knew about the Archdiocese's actions years ago and waited until now to sue. The men argue they didn't realize the extent of a possible cover-up until much more recently.

The Milwaukee Archdiocese has spent millions to settle cases with victims who've come forward in the past several years, putting the building that served as its administrative center up for sale to cover those costs.

We do not wish to see an organization with such a strong focus on social justice bankrupted, especially as it takes steps toward restoring trust. However, if the church's mistakes prove as damaging as the plaintiffs claim, it has one lingering debt to acknowledge.


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