Court Rules on Church Liability; Discipline of Errant Clergy Is Not Matter for Judicial System

By Cary Segall
Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)
May 24, 1997

Churches can't be held liable for the sexual misconduct of clergy as a result of a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision Friday.

A divided court said the First Amendment bars courts from inquiring into the relationship of a church and its clergy and from holding a church liable for negligently supervising errant pastors.

The court acted in the case of a Madison woman who sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison after having a sexual relationship with a priest. She claimed church officials were negligent for not investigating the priest after his suspicious conduct with another woman.

The court, though, said the Constitution bars the judicial system from judging the conduct of the church in dealing with its priests.

"A bishop may determine that a wayward priest can be sufficiently reprimanded through counseling and prayer," Justice Patrick Crooks wrote for the court. "If a court was asked to review such conduct to determine whether the bishop should have taken some other action, the court would directly entangle itself in the religious doctrines of faith, responsibility and obedience."

Justices Don Steinmetz, Jon Wilcox and Janine Geske agreed with Crooks. Justice Bill Bablitch said the diocese wasn't liable, but the court didn't have to reach the First Amendment issue to decide the case. Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson dissented.

The dissenters said the ruling will have broad implications and absolve churches of liability in cases involving children even if church officials knew a priest was likely to molest children and took no action.

"Why should a diocesan decision to let a known pedophile work unsupervised with children enjoy ecclesiastical protection?" Bradley asked rhetorically for herself and Abrahamson.

"This reasoning, which stretches the fabric of the First Amendment to provide blanket protection to the diocese in all cases, is erroneous," she added. "The 'mercy and forgiveness' of a religious organization toward a known sexually exploitive clergyman does not excuse the organization from responding in damages when the cleric uses his position to procure his next victim."

Bradley said Laura Nyberg was entitled to a trial on her claim against the diocese and the Rev. J. Gibbs Clauder. Clauder had a sexual relationship with Nyberg from 1990 to 1991 after meeting her when he counseled her at Meriter Hospital in 1988.

The two met for meals and other social activities and had sex in Clauder's room in the rectory of St. Bernard Catholic Church.

Nyberg sued Clauder and the church after ending the relationship. She claimed Clauder violated state law in exploiting his role as a therapist and that diocese officials were negligent in supervising him.

Nyberg claimed the diocese should have investigated the priest after the Rev. John Hebl, then pastor at St. Bernard, found him bleeding from a bitten wrist and struggling with a different woman. The woman's blouse was ripped and Clauder had her pinned to the floor of his room.

The incident, in which Clauder violated Hebl's rule forbidding priests from having women in their rooms, happened shortly before Clauder started having sex with Nyberg.

Hebl admitted in pretrial testimony he thought Clauder and the first woman might have had sex and he was disappointed with the priest's conduct.

Nyberg's lawyer, David McFarlane, had argued that Hebl was accountable to the bishop and the church should be held responsible for not protecting Nyberg.

McFarlane said the dissent correctly warned about the ramifications of the ruling. He said the decision, which reversed a unanimous 4th District Court of Appeals, was the only such appellate ruling in the country.

"It will really insulate churches from liability even if pastors or high church officials have specific knowledge of an abusive or exploitive priest," he said.

Diocese lawyer Don Heaney said McFarlane was right.

Heaney said that under the decision the church won't be liable in seven cases pending in the Supreme Court and others in the Court of Appeals in which priests are accused of molesting children.

"The reason is that the constitutional fathers did not want the state meddling in religious affairs because it was an instrument of oppression," he said.

McFarlane said he probably won't appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because the state court said it also would have dismissed the case for factual reasons.

He said he didn't know if he would pursue the lawsuit against Clauder, who is working at Holy Rosary Congregation in Darlington.


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