Milwaukee Archdiocese Seeks to Settle Abuse Lawsuits

By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 12, 2010

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee will enter into mediation in an attempt to settle a dozen fraud lawsuits now pending in Milwaukee County Circuit Court over its handling of clergy sex abuse cases dating back decades, Archbishop Jerome Listecki said Tuesday.

The mediation, with retired Cook County, Ill., Judge Stuart Nudelman, is scheduled to begin Monday in Chicago.

A settlement would offer a degree of closure for victims who long have sought to hold the church accountable for their abuse; and protect the archdiocese from a devastating financial judgment that could push it into bankruptcy.

"We're trying to be responsive to the victims," said Listecki, who announced his intentions in his weekly letter to church leaders on Tuesday.

"We want to see if we can come to a solution without the necessity of a court trial and extensive legal fees," he said in a telephone interview. "Right now, we're hopeful."

Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul, Minn., attorney representing the plaintiffs, said they welcomed the church's overture.

"We've been trying for 15 years to get this archdiocese to step up and come clean with their secrets, and make peace with these survivors," said Anderson. "This is the first indication that they are willing to do this."

Listecki said it was too early to know whether the archdiocese would seek to have documents sealed - as some diocese have attempted - as part of any settlement agreement.

Anderson said such a provision would amount to a deal-breaker.

"As long as those documents are under seal, children are not protected," he said. "Victims want three things: They want exposure of all offenders, disclosure of all files, and closure."

The mediation involves 15 victims who accuse the church of defrauding them by moving pedophile priests from parish to parish without telling families about their sex abuse histories.

They include what are by now some of the local church's most notorious offenders: Fathers Siegfried Widera, David Hanser and Lawrence Murphy, who is accused of abusing as many as 200 boys at St. John School for the Deaf.

The mediation will not include the federal lawsuit against Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican pending in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee.

Allowed as fraud cases

All of the lawsuits have been filed since 2007 when the Wisconsin Supreme Court opened the door for victims to sue the church under the state's fraud statutes. The court previously had barred victims from suing for negligent supervision as an unnecessary intrusion of the state into the affairs of the church.

The pending cases have been on hold while the archdiocese and its insurance carriers battled over who would pay any judgment.

To date, the archdiocese has paid nearly $30 million to settle abuse cases and implement changes intended to protect children. On its website,, it lists 44 priests against whom credible allegations of sex abuse have been made. Listecki, who was installed as Milwaukee archbishop in January, said he has spent much of his first nine months immersed in a study of the cases and the church's efforts to address the sex abuse scandal.

"What we have learned about the human damage and suffering of the victims/survivors makes it clear that our goal must be to find ways to bring peace and comfort to these individuals and their families," Listecki said in his letter to church leaders. "Direct mediation talks between us may be that promising pathway."

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