Court Applies Time Limit to Some Sexual Abuse Suits

By Cary Segall
Wisconsin State Journal [Madison WI]
June 28, 1997

Adults who repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse by nonrelatives or didn't realize the damage it caused usually won't be allowed to sue their molesters as a result of a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision Friday.

In throwing out lawsuits by seven adults who claimed priests molested them as children, the court said they waited too long to sue under state law.

The court said it wouldn't create an exception for childhood sexual abuse victims from a law that requires most childhood injury victims to sue by the age of 20.

The court said the time limit had long passed for the six men and one woman who claimed four priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee abused them in instances from 1964 to 1987.

The ruling, which will also apply to other abusers such as baby sitters, neighbors and Boy Scout leaders, is bad news for victims of childhood sexual abuse, said Mark Wendorf, who represented two of the victims. He said most such victims don't understand until they become adults that they were injured.

"Those people, who through no fault of their own can't discover as children that they've been harmed, are going to lose the ability to go into court and seek justice," Wendorf said. "I'm dismayed by the decision of the court and I'm concerned for the children of Wisconsin."

But the archdiocese's lawyer, Matt Flynn, said it would have been unfair to let people sue priests and claim they were victims years ago.

"In some cases witnesses are dead, in other cases the defendant is dead, and the fact of the matter is it can encourage fraudulent claims to permit people to come forward a long time after the alleged incident," Flynn said.

He also said the diocese had a program, called Project Benjamin, to provide therapy to people abused by priests or other diocese employees.

"If somebody comes to Project Benjamin they will be cared for," Flynn said. "But they won't need a plaintiff's lawyer and there won't be a claim for damages."

The plaintiffs had claimed the archdiocese was negligent and knew or should have known priests William Effinger, Michael Neuberger, Jerome Lanser and S. Joseph Collova were molesting children. Effinger, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy, died in prison last December.

Wendorf and Robert Elliott, who represented five of the plaintiffs, said their clients had either repressed the memories of abuse until recently, or else remembered, but hadn't understood, the damage it caused.

One man, for example, said he remembered Effinger repeatedly molesting him when he was 13 in St. Francis DeSales Catholic Church in Lake Geneva. But he said he didn't understand the nature of his emotional injuries or their connection to Effinger's 1979 conduct until he saw a psychiatrist in 1992.

Another man said he didn't remember until 1990 that Lanser had sex with him from 1964 to 1969, starting when he was 8, in the sacristy and basement of St. Mary's Congregation in Menomonee Falls.

Wendorf had noted state time limits for other injury victims don't start running until the victims knew or should have known about the injury and its cause.

And he pointed to a 1987 law that specifically created such an exception for incest victims after the Court of Appeals reached such a result. The law applies to close relatives by blood or adoption and lets victims sue long after the abuse occurred.

The court, though, said the victims without repressed memories must have known of at least some injury and the cause by the last assault.

"These plaintiffs knew the individual priests, knew the acts of sexual assault took place and knew immediately that the assaults caused them injury," Justice Janine Geske wrote for the court.

The court noted contact with priests was transient and said the special allowance for incest victims was needed because of the family relationships. It also noted the Legislature has already let child victims wait until the age of 20 to sue.

The court said it wouldn't create an exception for victims with repressed memories because of the risk of fraud.

The result was unanimous, but Justice Shirley Abrahamson said she agreed only because she felt the court was bound by its similar decision in a 1995 case in which it refused to let a woman sue a priest 27 years after having sex with him when she was an adult. Abrahamson, who dissented in 1995, said she thought the issue of when victims realized their injuries and the cause should be resolved at trial.

Wendorf said he would encourage the Legislature to extend the protections offered to incest victims to other children abused by adults. He said 20 other states have such laws.

"Frankly, I am encouraging everyone I know to continue this fight in the Legislature," Wendorf said, "because we have to allow victims of child abuse the opportunity to go into court and bring their molesters to justice."


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