Church Protected from Suits; High Court Ruling Also Limits Action against Priests

By Cary Segall
Wisconsin State Journal
June 28, 1995

The Catholic Church cannot be sued for the negligent hiring, retaining, training or supervising of priests who commit sexual or other misconduct, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided, 4-2, Tuesday.

The court also said that victims of a priest's sexual advances must sue within three years of the priest's actions.

In overruling the 1st District Court of Appeals, the court said a Tucson woman cannot sue the Rev. John T. Donovan and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for what she claimed was Donovan's sexual misconduct.

The decision will make it nearly impossible for victims of a priest's misconduct in Wisconsin to collect damages from the Catholic Church, said Matt Flynn, the lawyer for the archdiocese.

"It's a very significant decision," Flynn said. "This will have a dispositive effect on many cases pending in the Court of Appeals."

The archdiocese has refused to disclose how much it has paid to settle or defend lawsuits claiming sexual misconduct by priests, but Archbishop Rembert Weakland said in 1993 that the archdiocese had set aside $ 2 million to cover potential damages.

The woman had claimed that Donovan used his position as a priest to befriend her in the late 1950s when she was a high school student and coerced her into a sexual relationship from 1959 to 1965. She claimed the archdiocese knew or should have known that Donovan had a sexual problem.

The woman said she waited until 1992 to sue because she didn't realize the nature and cause of her psychological injuries until then.

State law requires people to sue within three years after being injured. The high court, though, in other cases, has developed a so-called discovery rule in which it has said the three years doesn't start running until a person discovers the injury and its cause.

The court, though, said it wouldn't extend the discovery rule to cases of sexual misconduct by priests because of the potential for false claims and the unfairness to a priest being sued. It said the woman knew of Donovan's conduct when it occurred and could have sued within three years.

"Extending the discovery rule to this case would cause unfairness to a defendant who is forced to attempt to defend a suit for emotional and psychological injuries in which the alleged conduct took place over 27 years ago and increase the potential for fraud," Justice Roland Day wrote for the court.

And the court said that allowing lawsuits against the church for a priest's misconduct would violate the church's religious freedom.

"We conclude that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the courts of this state from determining what makes one competent to serve as a Catholic priest since such a determination would require interpretation of church canons and internal church policies and practices," Day wrote.

Justices Nathan Heffernan and Shirley Abrahamson dissented and said the woman's claim to have discovered her injury in 1992 should have been resolved at trial.

Abrahamson said the court had wrongly reached out to decide the constitutional issue of whether the archdiocese could be sued. She said it didn't need to resolve the issue after deciding the woman couldn't sue because of the time limits.

Justice Janine Geske didn't participate in the case.


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