High Court to Hear Priest Sex Cases; Seven Claim Emotional Damage and Say Catholic Church Should Pay

By Cary Segall
Wisconsin State Journal [Madison WI]
January 26, 1997

John Brown was 13 when he was sexually molested by his parish priest. He never forgot, but for years he didn't realize the damage he suffered.

John Doe didn't remember until 1990 a priest having sex with him more than 30 years ago.

Both men, along with five other adults who claim priests molested them long ago, say the Archdiocese of Milwaukee should pay for their emotional damage.

The plaintiffs, who use pseudonyms in their lawsuits, claim the archdiocese was negligent and either knew or should have known the priests were dangerous child abusers.

The archdiocese's lawyer, though, says the victims waited too long to sue under state law. And, he says, holding the church negligent would infringe on its First Amendment religious freedom to regulate priests as it sees fit.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear arguments from both sides Monday and its decision will likely determine whether any victims of sexual abuse by clergy can recover damages from religious groups.

"If we lose, it effectively slams the door shut on any victims of sexual abuse in bringing claims for that abuse against any religious organization," said Jeff Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul, Minn., who specializes in suing priests for molesting children.

Anderson, who represents two of the plaintiffs, said they won't be compensated if they can't collect from the church.

"Generally the individual perpetrators, such as priests, don't have any funds and you can't get blood out of a turnip," Anderson said.

Anderson said he is pleased the court chose to re-examine its 1995 decision in a similar case. It said then the church could never be sued for negligently hiring or retaining priests and could rarely be sued for negligently supervising or training priests.

In the 1995 case, a woman claimed a priest coerced her into a long sexual relationship. The court, though, decided, 4-2, that the woman couldn't sue the archdiocese for negligence because such a lawsuit would infringe on the church's freedom to decide who is competent to be a priest.

The court said it couldn't inquire into the church canons and its concepts of penance, admonition and reconciliation.

Anderson said he was shocked by the decision. He said the high court was the only appellate court in the country to reach such a result.

"To say that you can't sue a church because it infringes on the free exercise of religion is tantamount to giving the church a license to commit any heinous crime," Anderson said.

But the archdiocese's lawyer, Matt Flynn, said the court was correct in the 1995 case, which he handled.

"Because the courts cannot constitutionally determine what makes one competent or fit to act as a Catholic priest, the claim should not be recognized," Flynn said in his written arguments.

The plaintiffs, six men and a woman, claim they were abused by priests as long ago as 1964 and as recently as 1987.

The woman and two of the men said they were abused by the Rev. William Effinger, who was convicted in 1993 of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy. The archdiocese in 1993 settled nine other molestation lawsuits against Effinger, who died in prison in December.

Two other men claim they were molested by the Rev. Michael Neuberger. Another man claims he was abused by priest Jerome Lanser, and another claims priest S. Joseph Collova abused him. The three priests are no longer in the ministry, said archdiocese spokeswoman Jean Mullooly.

All of the lawsuits were thrown out by Milwaukee County Circuit Court judges. The 1st District Court of Appeals then asked the high court to take the case directly.

The lower court judges said the suits were barred, regardless of the archdiocese's negligence, by state laws that require people to sue within three years of being injured or two years of an assault.

The laws let injured minors wait until two years after they turn 18, but none of the victims met the time limits.

However Anderson and attorney Robert Elliott, who represents five of the plaintiffs, noted that in other personal-injury cases the court has said the time limit doesn't start running until a victim realizes he has been injured and knows the cause.

The lawyers said the victims either repressed the memories of abuse until recently or remembered but never understood the damage it caused.

Brown, for example, said he remembered Effinger repeatedly molesting him St. Francis DeSales Catholic Church in Lake Geneva.

But Elliott said Brown never understood the nature of his emotional injuries or their connection to Effinger until he saw a psychiatrist in 1992.

"It is typical that such victims are often unable to know or even suspect that they have suffered psychological injuries, or that their injuries were caused by the abuse until some event brings that to their attention," Elliott said in his written argument.

Doe said in an affidavit that he didn't remember until 1990 that Lanser had sex with him from 1964 to 1969 in the sacristy and basement of St. Mary's Congregation in Menomonee Falls.

Anderson said Doe, who was 8 when the abuse started, had coped with the abuse by repressing his memory. He finally remembered after extended therapy for various emotional problems.

"The repressed memory ... is a typical reaction of childhood sexual abuse," Anderson wrote.

• Argument rejected

But Flynn said the Supreme Court also had heard and rejected those arguments in the 1995 decision. The woman in that case claimed she had waited 27 years to sue because she hadn't realized the nature and cause of her psychological injuries.

The Supreme Court then acknowledged that a previous Court of Appeals decision said such delayed lawsuits were allowed in cases of incest. But the court said incest was different because of the age of the victims and secrecy of the incidents.

The court said it wouldn't extend the discovery rule to priests because of the potential for false claims and the unfairness to a priest being sued.

Anderson, though, said the absence of such a rule robs victims of their day in court. He said he helped write a Minnesota law that gives victims six years to sue after realizing they have been sexually abused. About 13 states have adopted a similar law.

"Victims of sexual abuse suffer in secrecy, silence and shame and are unable to disclose it until years later," Anderson said. "More often than not you have a survivor coming forward years after the abuse actually occurred."

Anderson said cases of children abused by priests are like cases of incest.

"Like incest cases, child sexual molestation by priests occurs in secrecy," Anderson wrote. "Like incest cases, a special authority relationship exists and is used by the perpetrator to accomplish the molestation and keep it secret.

"The trust, reverence, obedience and authority that a parish child gives to a Roman Catholic priest is at least as powerful, if not more powerful, than the relationship of authority held by a parent."


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