Suit to Target Archdiocese in Sex Abuse Cases
Church Protected Priest, 5 Claim
By Marie Rohde
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
December 6, 2002
A lawyer representing five men who say they were abused as boys by the late Father George Nuedling said he would file a lawsuit in Milwaukee County Circuit Court today accusing the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese of fraud.
Jerry Topczewski, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said church officials had not seen the lawsuit and had no comment on it.
The lawsuit will assert that the church should be responsible for damaging sexual acts because it was negligent in supervising the priest, said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minneapolis lawyer for the men. It will also accuse archdiocesan leaders of failing to live up to their obligations as shepherds of the church.
Anderson and his clients have a major hurdle to overcome: Starting in 1995, the state Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that effectively ended attempts to hold the church responsible for the actions of priests accused of abuse. After that, lawsuits dried up.
Anderson said state Supreme Court decisions in the mid-1990s may not apply to cases involving allegations of child abuse. The first of those cases — known as the Pritzlaff decision — involved an adult woman.
"There are facts of child sexual abuse — not adult exploitation — where they had knowledge of wrongdoing or ratified it and retained the priest anyway," Anderson said.
The lawsuit Anderson will bring does not specify how much in damages the men are seeking, but lawsuits in other cities have asked for millions. Lawsuits in Boston have left the archdiocese there considering bankruptcy. The Anderson suit does not name individuals, such as former Archbishop Rembert Weakland or Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba.
The fraud charge in the suit Anderson intends to file in Milwaukee stems from the nature of the priesthood. Priests are given power over their flock — especially children — and have a responsibility to protect them from abusive clergy, the suit will assert.
The church had a responsibility to find and reveal misconduct, but instead misrepresented, concealed and failed to disclose Nuedling's misbehavior, the suit will allege.
Anderson has handled about 500 priest sex-abuse cases across the country. In a recent round of lawsuits, he sued dioceses in several states, including Missouri, Florida and California, under federal anti-racketeering laws that were originally aimed at organized crime.
Anderson would receive 33% to 40% of any judgment, he said.
Claims hundreds of calls
Anderson said he has gotten hundreds of calls from victims who claim they had been abused in Wisconsin, more than 50 since the recent wave of scandals broke in Boston early this year. He said he has long believed that the Wisconsin court decisions do not necessarily preclude lawsuits brought on the behalf of those who were victimized as children.
"I have concluded that this group of survivors is committed and able to emotionally fight the battle that has to be fought," Anderson said. "It's going to be long and hard and it may be bloody, but it's one that's got to be fought."
Robert "Rock" Pledl, a Brookfield attorney who specialized in clergy sexual misconduct cases during the late 1980s and early 1990s, said it is rare for the state Supreme Court to reverse itself on an issue. But now may be an opportune time to try to make that happen, he said.
"Most of the courts across the nation that have looked at the issue of clergy abuse in recent years have said that it's possible to sue the church as an organization," Pledl said.
Using fraud statutes is a solid tactic, Pledl said, adding that lawyers had long questioned whether the Pritzlaff decision applied to children.
But Janine Geske, a former state Supreme Court justice and interim dean of Marquette University Law School, said the court's decision in Pritzlaff would be very difficult to overturn because it was based on a constitutional analysis. Geske was a member of the court at the time but recused herself from the case because she knew the priest involved. She did participate in subsequent court decisions on priest misconduct cases.
Anderson will have to distinguish his case from Pritzlaff significantly to show that it warrants a new look by the courts, Geske said. She said the fraud tactic may be viable, however, "he's going to have a tough time."
Nuedling, who was ordained in 1948 and died in 1994, was described by one church official as "a notorious pedophile" during a June meeting of parishioners of St. John the Evangelist in Twin Lakes, the last parish Nuedling served.
Maureen Gallagher, director of the Archdiocese Department of Parishes, told parishioners in June that Nuedling acknowledged misconduct to Sklba after a victim came forward in 1986.
In a recent letter to abuse victims, Sklba quarreled with press reports of the matter, denying that the allegations had to do with sexual abuse. Sklba described it as "serious unprofessional behavior" and said he had consulted professionals about Nuedling. Sklba did not provide details or name the professionals he consulted.
Topczewski said Sklba was at a meeting on Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in Washington, D.C., and could not be reached for comment. Topczewski declined to elaborate on the allegations.
Sklba, who met with the priest four months after receiving the allegation, said in the letter that Nuedling told him the incident occurred before he had sought treatment for alcoholism.
At the parish meeting, Gallagher said Sklba warned Nuedling in 1986 that he could not have unsupervised contact with youth. Nuedling was the only priest in his parish and general knowledge of the allegations did not become public until this year.
Nuedling retired in 1993 after another victim came forward accusing him of abuse years before.
Suit to allege 13 victims
In the lawsuit he plans to file, Anderson claims that Nuedling abused at least four boys between 1959 and 1964 and nine others between 1968 and 1980. In 1980, a deacon — described as an "agent" of the church — saw Nuedling abusing a boy, the suit will allege.
Three of the five plaintiffs are named in the lawsuit: James Ahler and brothers Jonathan and James Gillespie. The other two are not identified.
James Gillespie said Thursday he believes there are other victims and hopes they will seek help.
"They have a lifetime of danger ahead — failed marriages, lost jobs and careers, alcoholism, drug addiction," Gillespie said. "Some could even become abusers themselves. It's important that they come forward now and get help."
Gillespie said he was reluctant to speak publicly.
"Nobody wants this kind of notoriety," he said. "If this is my 15 minutes of fame, I'd just as soon take a rain check."
Peter Isely, a regional spokesman for a national survivors group, said he hopes that the filing of the lawsuits will change the legal climate in Wisconsin and encourage Archbishop Timothy Dolan to mediate claims brought by victims.
"We need to find a way to help these people who are suffering so," said Carmen Pitre, who is a board member of the archdiocese's Project Benjamin, a program designed to help victims.
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