Negligence Issue
Court to Rule on Diocese Lawsuits
Justices to Decide If Church Can Be Sued over Priests in Sex Cases

By Richard P. Jones
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Wisconsin]
July 31, 1996

In its new term starting Thursday, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Milwaukee Archdiocese can be sued for negligent supervision of priests accused of sexually abusing minors years ago.

The court has agreed to hear seven appeals, consolidating them as one case. All involved individuals who claimed that, as minors, they were sexually abused by their parish priests.

Father William J. Effinger was named in three civil suits by individuals alleging abuse as far back as 1968 when he was at St. Frances DeSales Church in Lake Geneva. In 1993, Effinger entered a no-contest plea in Sheboygan County court to second-degree sexual assault and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Father Michael Neuberger, formerly of St. Boniface Church in Milwaukee, was named in two lawsuits, accusing him of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy in 1968 and a 16-year-old boy in 1965 and continuing to assault the second boy until the boy was 18.

Similar claims were filed against Father S. Joseph Collova of St. James Catholic Church in Franklin and Father Jerome Lanser of St. Mary's Church in Menomonee Falls. Collova is accused of assaulting a 14-year-old boy in 1980 and continuing the assaults until the boy was 21 in 1987. Lanser is accused of assaulting a boy from 1964 to 1969, from the time the boy was 8 years old until he was 13.

Trial court judges had dismissed the claims because, among other things, the suits were filed years after the legal limit for doing so had expired.

In a 4-2 ruling a year ago, the Supreme Court decided a similar case in favor of the archdiocese. Judith M. Pritzlaff had filed a $3 million suit against the archdiocese and Monsignor John Donovan, formerly of St. Monica Parish in Whitefish Bay.

Pritzlaff alleged that Donovan befriended her as a high school student and later coerced her into a sexual relationship that began in 1959 and ended in 1965. She filed suit in 1992 after undergoing therapy and realizing the affair was the underlying cause of her troubled life.

While the court ruled that Pritzlaff's claim was barred by the statute of limitations, it left the door open to suits for negligent supervision. The court said such claims would be fraught with legal difficulty under the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.

For example, the judiciary could not begin to rule on who should or should not be a priest. However, the court said that in some instances, it may be able to decide questions of supervision and negligence that do not entangle the judiciary in matters of church doctrine and policy.

In the case now before the court, attorneys were expected to file briefs arguing that unlike Pritzlaff, the seven individuals were minors when the sexual abuse occurred and that they repressed any memory of the abuse until years later as adults.

Attorneys for the seven individuals also were expected to argue that these cases represent limited circumstances in which the archdiocese could be held liable for the priests' supervision, circumstances that the Supreme Court raised in its Pritzlaff ruling.

One suit against Effinger was filed by an individual identified only as A.C., who alleged that he was sexually abused repeatedly at the age of 6 in 1978.

Another suit against Effinger was filed by a woman who alleged she was assaulted as a child in the summer of 1968 or 1969. She alleged that the assault occurred in the church after Effinger and her father drank beer outside. She said she was unable to recall the incident until 1993 after therapy for psychological problems.

The third suit against Effinger was filed by a man who alleged repeated sexual abuse in 1979 when he was 13 years old. According to the suit, he mentioned the abuse to his parents, at some point his brothers, at least one friend, and years later, his fiance, but did not realize the psychological harm done until seeking professional counseling in 1992.


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