Diocese Fraud Suit Moves Ahead

By Chris Hubbuch
Lacross Tribune
March 9, 2011

A fraud lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of La Crosse that claims child sexual abuse four decades ago moved forward Tuesday.

La Crosse County Circuit Judge Scott Horne denied the diocese's motion to dismiss the complaint, in which a Plover, Wis., woman contends diocese officials knew a priest had a history of molesting children before he abused her in 1971.

Brenda Varga, now 48, met the late Rev. Raymond Bornbach in 1971 when her family attended a wedding at his church, according to the complaint. He later visited her, bringing the third-grader gifts and taking her to his house, where Varga said he molested her on and off for a year until Bornbach's housekeeper caught him in a bedroom with her.

The diocese removed Bornbach from ministry in 2004 after the diocesan review panel found Varga's reports credible, though Bornbach's attorney said at the time his client denied abusing her. 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 complaint cites a church member who said his wife witnessed Bornbach "touching a little girl inappropriately in the church sacristy" and later reported the incident to the bishop and nuns at the parish school.

Diocese attorney James Birnbaum argued that amounts to 43-year-old gossip.

"Gossip is not fraud," he said.

Birnbaum also argued Varga fails to show diocese officials made any affirmative statements about Bornbach that could be construed as fraud.

Horne ruled that placing a priest in unsupervised contact with children is the equivalent of saying he is safe.

His ruling clears the way for the parties to begin examining evidence and interviewing witnesses.

"This is one of the first times this diocese is going to have to answer some hard questions," said Varga's attorney, Mike Finnegan. "They'll be forced to reveal some of the secret documents they have."

Birnbaum said Horne's ruling was disappointing but not unexpected, and the legal process will allow the diocese to interview the housekeeper, who denies witnessing the abuse.

"These are very painful cases," Birnbaum said. "Child sexual abuse is a very serious matter. On the other hand, not every claim has merit."

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