More Details Needed in Diocese Fraud Suit

By Chris Hubbuch
Lacrosse Tribune
November 17, 2010

A sexual abuse lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of La Crosse faced a temporary setback Tuesday, though it appears it will eventually move forward.

La Crosse County Circuit Judge Scott Horne ruled Tuesday that a Plover, Wis., woman's fraud suit filed in late 2008 lacks sufficient detail to show diocese officials knew a priest had a history of molesting children before he abused her nearly 40 years ago.

But Horne gave her attorney until Dec. 15 to amend the complaint and indicated it would be sufficient if it included information contained in another court document.

According to the complaint, Brenda Varga met the late Rev. Raymond Bornbach in 1971 when her family attended a wedding at his church. He later visited her, bringing the third-grader gifts and taking her to his house, where Varga said he repeatedly molested her for a year until Bornbach's housekeeper caught him.

The diocese removed Bornbach - who already had retired - from ministry in 2004 after a review panel found Varga's allegations credible, though Bornbach's attorney said his client denied the claims. Bornbach died in 2006.

Varga's suit claims then-Bishop Frederick Freking knew Bornbach had a proclivity for young girls when he was assigned in 1968 to St. Michael's Parish in Hewitt, Wis.

The diocese sought to dismiss the case on the grounds Varga, now 47, failed to provide sufficient details for her claims.

"It's just a bald-faced allegation that the bishop knew," diocesan attorney James Birnbaum said Tuesday in La Crosse County Circuit Court.

In an April 2009 sworn affidavit, an employee of Varga's attorney said she spoke to a former president of the St. Michael's parent organization who said that in 1968 his wife saw Bornbach touching a girl inappropriately in the church sacristy. The unnamed man said he left detailed messages for then-Bishop Frederick Freking, who never returned his calls. He said he also reported it to a diocesan priest as well as nuns at St. Michael's.

Birnbaum called the allegations "nothing more than gossip."

But if the affidavit's details are included in the complaint, Horne said he would be "hard pressed" to find it insufficient to proceed.

That could open the door for Varga's attorneys to see diocese records through the discovery process, which attorney Michael Finnegan said could reveal what officials knew.

Plaintiffs should not be allowed to file a suit simply to get access to facts, Birnbaum argued. "These are not statutes that allow fishing expeditions."

Horne stayed discovery until he rules on the diocese's motion to dismiss, now set for March 8.

Birnbaum argued the case is four decades old and potential witnesses - including Bornbach and Freking - are dead, making it difficult to defend.

"The reason why some of these cases are just coming to light,' Finnegan countered, "is dioceses and bishops have been very successful at covering up allegations."


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