The judge in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee bankruptcy on Wednesday dismissed nine sexual abuse claims involving priests and a counselor at a Catholic social service agency — the largest group of victims eliminated from the 4-year-old bankruptcy to date.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley threw out nine of 10 claims challenged by the archdiocese, saying seven of the victims failed to show evidence of fraud — the basis for their claims — and that lawsuits by two others had previously been dismissed by state courts.
The judge left one claim standing, at least for now: that of Arthur Budzinski, who was molested by the late Rev. Lawrence Murphy at St. John's School for the Deaf as a boy in the 1970s.
Kelley said evidence suggests the archdiocese may have known as early as the 1950s that Murphy was molesting deaf boys at the school and failed to remove him, and that such disputes over facts must be litigated rather than dismissed on summary judgment as the archdiocese had asked.
The 10 claims taken up Wednesday had been seen by some as test cases that could be used to dismiss large numbers of similar claims.
Victims voiced anger and disappointment at Kelley's dismissals of the nine. Even Budzinski drew little consolation from his victory.
"It's ugly," Budzinski said through a sign language interpreter.
He lashed out at the archdiocese and its attorneys, who challenged the admissibility of the evidence against Murphy, including a letter from a Chicago priest who said he had reported Murphy to then-Archbishop Albert Meyer in the 1950s.
"The church needs to be honest. It's not being honest," he said.
Monica Barrett, whose claim involving the late Rev. William Effinger was disqualified because of a prior state court ruling, called Kelley's decision "a travesty of justice."
Barrett took issue with the judge's characterization of pedophile priests as "a few bad apples."
"That's insulting and demeaning to every survivor who suffered at the hands of these criminals," she said. "Let's call them what they are: criminals."
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said Kelley's ruling affirms what the archdiocese has said for years about most of the sex abuse allegations against its priests — "that the vast majority of abuse was not known to the archdiocese until years after it occurred."
The 10 survivors are among the more than 500 individuals who filed sex abuse claims seeking compensation. The claims considered Wednesday involved some of the archdiocese's most notorious sex offenders, including Murphy, who is believed to have molested some 200 boys over the years; Effinger; and the late Rev. George Nuedling.
Wednesday's hearing was the latest legal battle in a costly and contentious bankruptcy filed by the archdiocese in January 2011 to address its sexual abuse liabilities dating back decades — and the latest in a string of legal victories for the archdiocese in the Chapter 11 proceedings.
Barred by Wisconsin courts from asserting negligent supervision — the claim asserted in most church abuse cases around the country — survivors allege instead that the archdiocese defrauded them by moving problem priests from post to post without divulging they were a danger to children.
Six of the survivors were unable to show Wednesday that the archdiocese knew about their abusers before they were molested because theirs were the first allegations to surface against those offenders. One, involving an unnamed priest, is the first and only accusation against that cleric, the archdiocese said.
Legal fees in the bankruptcy have totaled more than $16 million, according to the archdiocese. However, victims' attorneys and the advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Who Have Been Abused by Priests, put it at more than $20 million. Each side accuses the other of dragging the case out by litigating every possible point. Under bankruptcy law, the archdiocese pays the bill for both sides.Top priority for church
Wednesday's hearing brings to at least 12 the number of claims dismissed to date at the request of the archdiocese.
The archdiocese has filed objections to all of the sex abuse claims in the bankruptcy. However, it filed a reorganization plan last year that would set aside what is now up to $5.1 million to compensate 128 men and women who were abused by diocesan priests who are identified on the archdiocese website as having credible allegations of abuse.
Victims have criticized the plan as inadequate and unfair.
Kelley ruled last June that she did not have jurisdiction to approve the plan while key questions in a related lawsuit, over $60 million the archdiocese holds in trust for its cemeteries, are pending before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Topsczewski said drafting an amended plan is a top priority for the archdiocese so it can "finally emerge from Chapter 11 and return its focus to its charitable, educational, and spiritual mission."
Topczewski said the archdiocese would use Kelley's rulings as the legal basis for the classification of victims in the reorganization plan. How victims are classified dictates who is compensated, who is eligible for paid therapy services and so on.
Kelley urged the archdiocese to reduce the hurdles to therapy especially for victims of the archdiocese's most notorious offenders, whether their cases have been dismissed or not.
Victims have criticized the archdiocese's therapy plan, saying it's not independent — a departure from the archdiocese's current policies on counseling services for victims.
"I don't know of anyone," said Barrett, "who wants to go back to their abuser and ask for therapy."