Priest Abuse Victims Want More Time
State Justices Hear Arguments Regarding Statute of Limitations
By Gina Barton
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 13, 2005
Fond du Lac - The state Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a case that could make it easier for people abused by priests to sue the church.
The suit arose out of the alleged abuse of at least 10 children in the 1960s and 1970s by Father George Nuedling, who died in 1994. In 2002, the 10 sued the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, alleging negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud.
In July 2003, the state Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that the suit could not move forward because the statute of limitations had expired. The plaintiffs, who attended Milwaukee-area churches where Nuedling pastored some 40 years ago, claimed they were abused between the ages of 9 and 14. State law at the time required them to take legal action within a year of turning 21.
The statute of limitations and a new state law that gives child sexual abuse survivors more time to take legal action were topics of discussion Tuesday. The case was heard in Fond du Lac as part of a "traveling court" program designed to make the Supreme Court more accessible to citizens.
The suit was filed in 2002 because that is when the plaintiffs discovered evidence that the archdiocese had known about Nuedling's pedophilia for at least 20 years, according to Pennsylvania attorney Marci Hamilton, who argued for the plaintiff.
The information came out as a result of national publicity surrounding child sexual abuse by Catholic priests and through lawsuits in other jurisdictions.
All but one of the plaintiffs, known as John Doe 67C, have since negotiated settlements with the archdiocese and have been removed from the case.
The clock on the statute of limitations should have started ticking when Doe learned about the coverup, not when he was abused, Hamilton contended.
"He had no idea that this record involving Father Nuedling was there, or that the church was hiding abuse by priests," she said.
But Milwaukee attorney John A. Rothstein, representing the archdiocese, said it would be unreasonable to expect the church to defend a 40-year-old case in which the alleged perpetrator and many of the witnesses are dead. He asked the court to instead consider public policy and use a state law that took effect in 2004 as their guide. That law allows survivors of child sexual abuse to file civil suits until their 35th birthdays. It also extends the statute of limitations for criminal charges until the victim turns 45.
The case in question was filed when Doe was in his 50s.
Rothstein also pointed out that so far, there was no evidence that the church knew about Nuedling's abusive behaviors in the 1960s, when Doe allegedly was abused. The knowledge only existed as far back as the 1980s, according to information in the court record so far.
To win at trial, the plaintiff would have to prove the archdiocese "knew or should have known" Nuedling was an abuser at the time Doe was victimized.
The statute of limitations wasn't the only issue before the court.
The appeals court also said a 1995 Supreme Court ruling prevented the suit from moving forward. That 2-1 ruling said the church could not be sued in such cases because of the First Amendment's requirement for the separation of church and state.
Hamilton conceded that the government cannot curtail religious speech but argued that the government is capable of regulating conduct, even if it is religious.
A decision in Doe's favor doesn't mean he wins the case. It only means Doe would have the opportunity to pursue discovery in an attempt to prove his allegations before a jury.
The high court's ruling could have implications for many others who were abused as children by priests.
For example, another John Doe filed suit against the archdiocese in February. That suit claims that the archdiocese is guilty of fraud and negligence because officials there did not inform parishioners about prior criminal conduct by a different priest, Father Sigfried Widera. Doe was an altar boy at St. Andrew's in Delavan and was between the ages of 5 and 8 when Widera molested him in the mid-1970s, the suit says. Doe's attorney hoped the new suit would be allowed to go forward because he already has proof the archdiocese knew about Widera's criminal conviction for child sexual abuse at the time he was assigned to St. Andrew's.
However, a ruling against the archdiocese in the 2002 case would only help the new plaintiff.
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