Abuse Suits Came Too Late, Court Says
State Supreme Court Rules against 7 Who Claimed Sexual Abuse by Clergy
By Richard P. Jones
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June 28, 1997
Seven adults who claimed they were sexually abused as children by their parish priests cannot sue the Milwaukee Archdiocese for negligence, the Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court said the individuals were years late in filing their civil suits. They should have gone to court when the abuse occurred, or when they realized the harm, but no later than one to two years after becoming adults, justices ruled.
By unanimous decision, the court affirmed the decisions of Milwaukee County circuit judges to dismiss the lawsuits against four Roman Catholic priests, including one who died last year.
Five individuals claimed it was only recently that they realized the psychological and emotional harm caused by the abuse. Two claimed they had repressed memory of the incidents and the identity of their abusers.
Writing for the court, Justice Janine Geske stressed at the outset that the cases had not gone to trial and the court was accepting the allegations as fact for the sake of argument.
Geske said the Legislature extended the statute of limitations for two types of sexual assault: incest and sexual exploitation by a therapist. But she said it has not extended the deadline for legal action for other types of sexual assault involving minors, and the court would not do so with this case.
The plaintiffs had to sue within two years of reaching adulthood to meet Wisconsin's statute of limitations, she said.
Geske said the individuals exceeded the statute of limitations by as little as three years in one case and as many as 22 in another. In two cases, the abuse was alleged to have occurred when the individuals were 6 years old.
"We reach our conclusion in these cases not because we lack compassion for victims of non-incestuous sexual assault, or because such assault is somehow less reprehensible than incest," Geske said. "These plaintiffs have brought very serious allegations that when they were children or teenagers, they were abused by clergymen."
However, she wrote: "When such allegations are made long after the alleged occurrence, the potential for fraud is heightened. The opportunity to fairly prosecute, and to defend against, these claims is frustrated."
When the case was argued before the court in January, Matthew Flynn, the attorney for the archdiocese, said allowing the suits to proceed would invite fraudulent claims.
"The cases involved events from 20 to 30 years ago, and in some cases, witnesses had died," Flynn said Friday. "In one case, the defendant had died. The purpose behind the statute of limitations is to deter stale and fraudulent claims because it's so difficult to defend a case after that length of time."
In December, Father William Effinger died in prison. He 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.
Besides Effinger, other priests named in the negligence suits were Michael Neugerger, formerly of St. Boniface Church in Milwaukee; S. Joseph Collova of St. James Catholic Church in Franklin; and Jerome Lanser of St. Mary's Church in Menomonee Falls.
Mark Wendorf, the attorney for two of the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed "because this decision closed the courthouse door for these two young men."
Wendorf said the decision meant even victims who had repressed the memory of their molestations would be unable to seek justice in court.
"What is unfortunate is that all we were asking from the beginning is the ability to go to a jury of reasonable people, present our case, have the defense present its case and have the jury decide which is right," he said.
Peter Rofes, an associate professor of law at Marquette University, said the ruling made it clear that the high court thought it was fair to require minors to seek damages for alleged abuse no later than a year or two after they reached adulthood.
"If (minors) don't, they're out of luck," he said.
As the court has done in a number of similar decisions, Rofes said, justices suggested the state Legislature was the proper place to seek exceptions to the statutory provisions.
And Wendorf said the plaintiffs may do just that.
In a similar case two years ago, the court ruled against a Milwaukee woman seeking $3 million in damages from the archdiocese. Flynn said no figures were set in these suits because attorneys are prohibited from specifying an amount when filing damage suits.
"It's impossible to say what the consequences would be because if we went to trial, in my judgment, we would have won all of these anyway," Flynn said.
In a 4-2 ruling two years ago, the court held that a $3 million suit by Judith Pritzlaff exceeded the statute of limitations.
She alleged that from 1959 to 1965, when she was a young adult, her parish priest forced her into a sexual relationship. Her suit was against the archdiocese and Monsignor John Donovan, formerly of St. Monica Parish in Whitefish Bay.
In a concurring opinion Friday, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said the court's decision was bound by the earlier Pritzlaff ruling.
For that reason, she said she joined in the court's latest mandate, even though she had dissented from the Pritzlaff ruling.
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