Judge Rejects 1 Archdiocese Bankruptcy Claim Tuesday

By M.l. Johnson
The Associated Press
October 22, 2013

Cardinal Timothy Dolan speaks in his first appearance in the state since a document release shed new light on the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's handling of clergy abuse cases during a period that included Dolan's leadership, Thursday, Sept. 5, in Milwaukee. / AP

MILWAUKEE — A clergy sexual abuse victim who received $80,000 from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee during mediation cannot seek additional compensation in bankruptcy court, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

The archdiocese is being sued for fraud in federal bankruptcy court by hundreds of victims who say it transferred problem priests to new churches without warning parishioners and covered up priests’ crimes for decades. Those victims include a number who previously settled with the archdiocese, and the latest decision could affect their cases as well.

According to court documents, the man was abused by Lawrence Murphy, a priest who served at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. Murphy, who died in 1998, has been accused of molesting hundreds of boys at the school.

It is not clear when the man reported the abuse. Former Milwaukee archbishop and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan established the mediation program in 2003 after the national clergy sexual abuse scandal erupted. The archdiocese settled with hundreds of victims through that program. Most received about $50,000, along with therapy costs.

The man who received $80,000 said that he was lied to during mediation and that became the basis for his claim in bankruptcy court. But U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa ruled that Wisconsin law protects what is said during the mediation process and that cannot be used as evidence during the bankruptcy proceeding. Randa also said that since both the mediation and bankruptcy claims involved abuse by Murphy, the man could not seek additional compensation.

Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for current Archbishop Jerome Listecki, welcomed the ruling as fair to all involved.

“We do not think it would be fair for individuals who already reached a settlement resolution with the archdiocese to receive additional payments through the Chapter 11 case, so we hope this decision will be helpful in moving the proceeding forward,” he said in an email.

But Mike Finnegan, an attorney for many of the victims with claims in bankruptcy court, said the decision wasn’t fair given the circumstances. He said the man involved was deaf, had a limited command of English, which is his second language, and didn’t have an attorney during mediation. “He’s completely taken advantage of here,” Finnegan said.

He said his team is strongly considering appealing the decision. It also will take a look at other victims’ claims to see which ones involve events that happened during mediation. If Randa’s decision stands, those victims may not be able to pursue their cases.

A 1995 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that the church is protected from negligence lawsuits by the First Amendment made it nearly impossible for sexual abuse victims to hold the church responsible for its priests’ actions. To get around that, victims sued for fraud, but that means they must prove the archdiocese knowingly covered up or lied about abuse. In some cases, that may be impossible if attorneys cannot use statements made during mediation.

Peter Isely, a longtime activist who now serves as the Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the court decision may seem fair because this victim received $80,000, but another victim who endured similar abuse received only $5,000 and also could be barred from any additional compensation.

The law in Wisconsin seems to protect the church rather than those abused as children, Isely said, calling it “terrible and dangerous public policy.”


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.