Court Halts Suit against Archdiocese

By Jr Ross
Associated Press, carried in Pioneer Press [Wisconsin]
July 14, 2005

MADISON, Wis. — The Milwaukee Archdiocese cannot be sued by a man who claims he was abused by one of its priests 40 years ago because church leaders had no reason at the time to believe the priest was a child molester, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Still, advocates for victims of clergy abuse hailed the decision as a victory because the court did not use the lawsuit to reaffirm a 1995 decision that gave religious organizations in Wisconsin blanket immunity from civil claims over their hiring practices.

Peter Isley, Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the court's silence on the issue was an invitation for others to file new lawsuits challenging the decade-old decision.

"This decision does not help children right now in the state of Wisconsin. But for those who have been harmed, it opens the door for them to get moving," Isley said.

Identified in court papers only as John Doe 67F, the alleged victim claimed the archdiocese was negligent in its supervision of the Rev. George Nuedling, who he claims was moved from parish to parish even though church leaders had knowledge he had abused children.

But a unanimous court ruled there was no proof church leaders had reason to believe Nuedling was abusing children as early as 1960 to 1962, when Doe claims he was abused, and thus the suit was barred under state law.

Because the justices ruled the suit could not proceed on those grounds, they refused to review a 1995 Supreme Court decision that gave religious organizations immunity from civil suits over their hiring practices.

Still, three of the seven justices said they believed the 1995 decision should be reversed to allow such suits in the future. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley chided her fellow justices for dodging the issue and said religious employers must be subject to state laws regarding hiring practices to ensure the safety of children.

"This court should not allow church officials to be beyond reproach of the law," she wrote.

Kathleen Hohl, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the court's decision upheld the legal position the church has taken all along and said it would not affect the diocese's work to help victims of sexual abuse and to address the problem.

Last year, the archdiocese printed a list of 43 priests and former priests who were restricted from duties because of abuse allegations. It also has undertaken a series of programs to help victims of abuse.

"We can always do better and we always look forward to input and information from people on how our actions can be more effective," Hohl said. "Today's decision does not impact the work that we're currently doing with victim survivors."

Ten people filed civil lawsuits in 2002 alleging Nuedling abused them between 1960 and 1980. They claimed the Milwaukee Archdiocese and St. John the Evangelist Church in Twin Lakes were negligent and committed fraud because they knew Nuedling had abused them as children but failed to take steps to protect them. Nuedling last served at the Twin Lakes church before his death in 1994.

A Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge and an appeals court rejected the suits, both times ruling the claims were filed after the statute of limitations had expired.

The statute of limitations in place at the time of the alleged abuse would have barred John Doe 67F's claims by 1970 at the latest, after he had turned 21, according to court records.

But John Doe 67F argued that limit should have been extended to 2002, when the church hierarchy began to reveal its role in the sex abuse scandal that plagued the Catholic Church, including the revelation that church hierarchy had moved some priests from parish to parish despite allegations they had abused children. Because the court agreed to dismiss Doe's lawsuit on other grounds, it refused to rule on the issue.

The other nine people involved in the original suits have since reached settlements with the archdiocese and dropped out of the complaint.

Since the man's lawsuit was filed, the state has changed the law to extend the statute of limitations for filing similar suits to the age of 35. But that change was not retroactive and does not apply to the man's suit.

Gov. Jim Doyle has also said he would support a window that would allow victims of clergy abuse to file lawsuits even if the statute of limitations had expired. But the church has opposed such a move, saying it would be too difficult to defend itself against lawsuits that could date back decades.