Appeals Court Rejects Lawsuits against Church
Archdiocese Wins in Abuse Cases Because of Statutes of Limitations
By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 31, 2004
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a Milwaukee County judge's decision to dismiss lawsuits brought by several men who accused the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese of protecting a priest who sexually abused them in the 1960s and '70s.
The ruling rejected an argument that the statute of limitations, the period allowed for filing lawsuits, should be extended in these cases because of factors such as alleged fraud by the church and the emotional impact of being abused as a minor.
"We believe the Court of Appeals made the appropriate decision," said Kathleen Hohl, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese. She declined to comment further.
Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who represented the plaintiffs, said he is committed to taking the cases to the Wisconsin Supreme Court if his clients choose to do that.
The ruling affects 10 cases -- five cases that Circuit Judge Michael Guolee ruled on in March 2003, plus five more that were filed later and then were consolidated into the appeal. All 10 alleged the late Father George Nuedling abused them.
"I am dismayed and ashamed that the laws are such in Wisconsin they so favor the predators and those that protect them, and let both the institutions and the predators hide behind statutes of limitation," Anderson said. "There has been a trend in this country that clearly recognizes the need to give these survivors more time. Wisconsin remains the only state, if not the most backward state, in going against that trend."
Although state Supreme Court decisions have effectively halted such lawsuits in Wisconsin since the mid-1990s, Anderson filed the suits here in the hope that later court decisions and revelations would help prompt different interpretations.
However, the 1st District Court of Appeals on Friday backed up Guolee's ruling that the statutes of limitations had expired. The statutes at the time on such offenses required that child victims of sexual abuse file lawsuits within a year or two of their 18th birthdays.
Anderson tried to get around that, partly by accusing the church of fraud and negligence in its handling of Nuedling. The plaintiffs did not learn until decades after the abuse that church officials knew Nuedling had abused more than a dozen children, he argued. He also contended that the plaintiffs did not recognize their injuries and take action sooner because of abuse-caused disabilities, their fear and their reverence for the church at the time.
But the ruling Friday by appeals court Judges Ted E. Wedemeyer Jr. and Ralph Adam Fine, with Judge Charles B. Schudson dissenting, quoted a 1997 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that minors who are sexually assaulted are presumed to have discovered the injury at the moment of the assault regardless of factors such as repressed memories.
The ruling also noted a 1995 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that negligent supervision claims against a religious body are barred in Wisconsin, adding, "Although we may disagree with these sentiments and question whether they are consistent with First-Amendment jurisprudence, they are binding on us."
Schudson questioned those conclusions and wanted the appeal to go directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court for a decision.
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