Appeals Court Says Diocese Can Be Sued in Sex Case Here

By Kevin Murphy
Capital Times (Madison, WI.)
July 25, 1996

A jury will have to decide if the Catholic Diocese of Madison was negligent in supervising a priest who allegedly engaged in an exploitive sexual relationship with a woman he was counseling, a state Appeals Court ruled today.

The ruling restores a civil lawsuit that Madison resident Laura Nyberg brought against the diocese. The case was dismissed last year by Circuit Judge George Northrup.

Nyberg also has sued the priest, Rev. J. Gibbs Clauder, who allegedly initiated a sexual relationship with Nyberg in 1990 after counseling her during her 1988 hospital stay. The parties agreed to stay that suit until the outcome of today's appeals ruling.

The Court of Appeals found that the diocese's First Amendment rights do not protect it from Nyberg's suit.

Northrup partly dismissed the suit because he found that Nyberg's claims interfered with the diocese's First Amendment rights. The diocese argued that the church needs to be free of government intervention.

David McFarlane, Nyberg's attorney, said today the appeal decision means this case does not involve religious issues.

"Had Northrup's ruling been allowed to stand, it would have made the diocese immune from further suits of this nature," McFarlane said.

Attorneys for the diocese were unavailable for immediate comment today.

The appeals court upheld Northrup's dismissal of Nyberg's claims that the diocese was liable for Clauder's alleged acts as a therapist and Clauder was not acting beyond his scope as an employee of the diocese.

According to the appellate decision:

The diocese placed Clauder as a chaplain at Meriter Hospital in 1984 and assigned him to the St. Bernard parish. Clauder, who had been a church employee, met Nyberg while she was a patient at Meriter and counseled her for her emotional problems stemming from a difficult pregnancy.

A sexual relationship developed in June 1990 as she continued to discuss with Clauder her emotional problems after her release from the hospital. Nyberg, who was married, met Clauder in his room at St. Bernard, at a hotel and at his family's cottage.

She felt the relationship was harmful and she ended it after he declined her request to discuss their relationship with someone from Catholic Social Services.

In a deposition, Clauder's pastor, Rev. John Hebl, said that prior to 1990, he found Clauder wrestling with a woman on the floor of Clauder's room at the rectory. Hebl said he did not investigate the incident or report it.

Hebl's failure to act allegedly made the diocese liable for future problems Clauder may have had with counseling patients as a chaplain, McFarlane said.

"There's evidence to believe there is potential for problems if (the diocese) continued Clauder's placement as a chaplain," McFarlane said.

Clauder remains a priest but does not work as a hospital chaplain, McFarlane said.


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