Madison Priest on Trial for Sexual Assault of a Child

By John Pilmaier
SNAP Wisconsin
November 30, 2011

The trial of Fr. Joseph Gibbs Clauder commenced yesterday inside a Madison courtroom. In March, Clauder was officially charged with second degree sexual assault of a child under the age of 16. The assaults are reported to have begun in 2003 when the victim was just 14 years old.

By the time of these reported assaults, Clauder was already well known to the Madison diocese as a potential abuser.

In 1999, the diocese of Madison secretly removed Clauder from ministry for sexual misconduct, without notifying Catholics or the public that they considered him a danger to others. Instead, Clauder was allowed to continue to present himself as a priest in good standing. And he continued to use his religious authority to harm others. The victim in the current criminal case, who is now 22 years old, described how Clauder assaulted her in a hotel room, as well as in her own bedroom at home. She testified that Clauder instructed her not to tell anyone of the assaults or she would go to hell. She stated "I really wanted to tell because I didn't want it to happen again…because I was scared that I'd go to hell".

Why didn't Madison church officials, by at least 1999, warn parishes and the public about Clauder and take steps 13 years ago, if not earlier, to have him permanently removed from the priesthood? Why did they, instead, secretly leave him unsupervised in the community, permit him to keep his roman collar, and go on to harm others?

No doubt because church officials in Wisconsin cannot be brought to civil justice for transferring, reassigning, or-as in Clauder's case-secretly putting on leave or retiring known or suspected sex offenders who are employees. The later, in fact, is exactly what Penn State officials did with serial predator Jerry Sandusky.

Wisconsin law, thanks to a pair of controversial state Supreme Court decisions in the 1990's, provides a unique liability shield for religious organizations and officials, the only one of its kind in the United States. Under current Wisconsin law no religious organization or religious supervisor-unlike any other organization or corporation in the state- can be sued for negligence pertaining to sexually abusive employees.

That is probably why the Madison diocese did not notify police when the victim reported Clauder to the diocese in 2009. The diocese did, however, send the criminal evidence they had obtained to officials in the Vatican who, not surprisingly, also did not inform civil authorities in the United States.

Clauder's trial is expected to last the remainder of the week. Regardless of its outcome, it shows that church officials, just like supervisors in any other organization in Wisconsin working with children and vulnerable adults, must be held accountable when they fail in their basic duties to report suspected abuse. Legislation, like the recently introduced Child Victims Act, although it does not specifically target negligent bishops or church officials, is a step in the right direction. The bill would reform the states dangerously outdated child sex abuse statutes, and make no special exemptions, as the current law does, for any organization or organizational supervisor–even Fr. Clauder's.

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