Court Rejects Wis. Archdiocese Case

By Michael Kirkland
United Press International
February 20, 1996

The Supreme Court Tuesday rejected a case involving the First Amendment and whether it protects churches from civil liability. The rejection leaves in place a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee could not be held liable for the alleged sexual abuse of a high school girl by one of its priests nearly 30 years ago. The case also deals with the issue of repressed memory: May a case be filed -- despite the three-year statute of limitations -- when alleged memories of decades-old abuse surface in the mind of alleged victim? In other words: Does the clock start ticking when the alleged abuse terminates, or does the three-year time limit begin when an alleged victim recovers memories, in this case 27 years after the alleged abuse? Judith Pritzlaff said she met Father John Donovan when she was a Catholic high school student in the late 1950s. "Between 1959 and 1965, Donovan used his position as a priest to develop a relationship with Pritzlaff...(and) force and coerce Pritzlaff into having a sexual affair with him without her consent," the woman's petition to the Supreme Court said. Pritzlaff "suffered severe emotional distress," her brief said, but the "distress, combined with coping mechanisms, caused (her) to suppress her injuries and rendered her unable to perceive the existence, nature or cause of said injuries." The woman claimed she eventually regained her knowledge of the alleged abuse, and filed suit in state court in 1992 against the priest and the archdiocese. A state judge, however, dismissed the claim against the priest because the three-year statute of limitations had run out, and dismissed the claim against the archdiocese by ruling that the alleged abuse would have had nothing to do with Donovan's employment. A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court eventually ruled that the statute of limitations barred Pritzlaff's claim against the priest, despite the woman's contention that the alleged abuse was discovered only shortly before the suit. The court also dismissed all claims against the archdiocese, saying such a belated claim "would be contrary to the public policy of the state," and ruled that the First Amendment barred "claims of negligent hiring, retaining and supervision...." Pritzlaff asked the U.S. Supreme Court for review. Tuesday's denial leaves the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in place. (No. 95-981, Pritzlaff vs. Archdiocese of Milwaukee)


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