Diocese Avoids Abuse Payouts

By Elizabeth Putnam
Marshfield News Herald
July 17, 2005

Victims of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse have received far less money from the Catholic Church during the past five decades than any other Wisconsin diocese or archdiocese, according to a Central Wisconsin Sunday review of abuse statistics from the state's four Catholic dioceses and one archdiocese.

Central Wisconsin Sunday found that from 1950 to 2002 the La Crosse Diocese, which includes Adams, Portage and Wood counties, spent $15,800 on counseling stemming from 58 sexual abuse allegations against 28 diocesan clergy members.

Thirty-one of those allegations, involving 10 clergymen, have been substantiated.

"Assistance has been made available in appropriate circumstances based upon need, not culpability of the diocese or whether the allegation is substantiated," according to a La Crosse Diocese report released in January 2004.

By contrast, abuse cases elsewhere in the state have yielded large payouts to victims: * The Diocese of Superior reported substantiated sexual abuse allegations against only two clergy members between 1950 and 2002 but paid about $60,000 to victims. The diocese's insurance company paid out $482,000.

* The Diocese of Madison paid $1.6 million to 19 victims from its self-insurance program.

* The Diocese of Green Bay paid $1.356 million, $1 million of which was paid by insurers to settle claims in three cases against one priest.

* The Archdiocese of Milwaukee paid $3.4 million for out-of-court settlements, attorney fees, therapy costs and other assistance. The archdiocese reported substantiated sexual abuse allegations against 45 clerics between 1950 and 2002.

Diocese of Superior

* Population: More than 88,000
* Parishes: 113
* Counties: Ashland, Barron, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Iron, Lincoln, Oneida, Polk, Price, Rusk, Sawyer, St. Croix, Taylor, Vilas, Washburn

Diocese of La Crosse

* Population: More than 200,000
* Parishes: 164
* Counties: Adams, Buffalo, Chippewa, Clark, Crawford, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson, Juneau, La Crosse, Marathon, Monroe, Pepin, Pierce, Portage, Richland, Trempealeau, Vernon, Wood

Diocese of Madison

* Population: 269,556
* Parishes: 135 parishes
* Counties: Columbia, Dane, Grant, Green, Green Lake, Iowa, Jefferson, LaFayette, Marquette, Sauk

Diocese of Green Bay

* Population: 376,000
* Parishes: 182 parishes
* Counties: Brown, Calumet, Door, Florence, Forest, Kewaunee, Langlade, Manitowac, Marinette, Menominee, Oconto, Outagamie, Shawano, Waupaca, Waushara, Winnebago

Archdiocese of Milwaukee

* Population: 731,516
* Parishes: 222
* Counties: Dodge, Fond du Lac, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Sheboygan, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha

Ben Nguyen, director of the office of communications for the La Crosse Diocese, said none of the substantiated allegations against diocesan clergy had led to a lawsuit against the diocese and the diocese would prefer not to negotiate legal settlements.

"We've never entered into any type of settlement. We have always met with the people to get to the truth of the matter," Nguyen said.

The diocese has not released the names of victims, making it difficult to verify independently why victims did not file civil lawsuits or seek financial settlements.

Victim questions diocese

That doesn't sit well with Brenda Varga, 43, of Plover. She said she underwent at least eight years of therapy following abuse by a priest when she was 9 years old, and she has asked the La Crosse Diocese several times to reimburse her for the sessions. Nguyen confirmed that Varga has not received any money for therapy.

In an August 2003 letter, the diocesan administrator, the Rev. Richard Gilles, told Varga that her 2003 complaint against the Rev. Raymond H. Bornbach "has been sufficiently confirmed."

The complaint detailed abuse dating back more than 30 years. In 1971, Varga was living in the Stevens Point area when her parents befriended Bornbach after he had presided at a family wedding at St. Michael's Church in Hewitt. The priest eventually asked to spend time with Varga and her sister, who is a year younger.

Bornbach would take the girls for drives, during which they would stop at waysides, Varga said. Once, Varga recalled, they stopped at Rib Mountain State Park.

During their stops, Bornbach would tell Varga's sister to wait outside the car and then kiss Varga on the mouth and rub her legs and thighs, Varga said.

The abuse continued for about a year, said Varga, who did not tell her parents about the abuse until she was 18 or 19. She said she sought counseling in 1997.

The La Crosse Diocese's sexual abuse policy calls for abusive priests to be removed permanently from ministry and bars them from celebrating Mass in public, wearing clerical garb or presenting themselves in public as priests.

Bornbach, who is retired and living in Marshfield, has been barred from performing any priestly duties.

Lawsuits difficult

Varga may be eligible for compensation under diocesan rules, though she said that she had not been told whether she would be reimbursed for the cost of therapy related to the abuse.

"I've called (the diocese) and called, but I haven't heard anything," Varga said.

Varga said she did not understand why victims in other dioceses have received big financial settlements. "What makes their pain different than mine? It really isn't about compensation, but I do get hurt when I read about these huge settlements," she said.

A 1995 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling made it nearly impossible for a victim to file a lawsuit against a religious organization, said Peter Isley, a Wisconsin spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

In Pritzlaff v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Judith Pritzlaff of Whitefish Bay sued the archdiocese for $3 million in 1992, claiming she had discovered in counseling that forced sex with a priest in 1959 had led to personal problems many years later.

The Supreme Court, in a 4-2 ruling, dismissed the case because the allegations stemmed from decades ago. The court also said legal claims involving personnel issues in a religious organization were barred under the First Amendment's freedom-of-religion guarantee.

"This has made it easy for clergy to hide," Isley said. "The only guarantee is simply to put (the Catholic Church) within the laws without exemptions."

Churches in Wisconsin also didn't have to report allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement agencies until the state Legislature passed a law in 2004 requiring them to do so.

Scandal leads to changes

The sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church in recent years has forced changes in the operations of Catholic dioceses.

Like most of the nation's dioceses, the La Crosse Diocese has established a review board composed of at least four lay Catholics not employed by the diocese. This board determines the legitimacy of allegations of abuse by a priest.

The diocese also has outlined standards of conduct for church employees and volunteers in positions of trust, and it conducts background checks on all diocesan and parish personnel who have regular contact with minors, using law enforcement resources when possible.

Still, sexual abuse by priests continues to cost the Catholic Church in the United States. So far, the Church has paid out more than $1 billion.

In response to the scandal, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a survey of sexual abuse on children by Catholic clergy from 1950 to 2002 that was released in February 2004. In the survey, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York researched most of the nation's 194 Catholic dioceses.

The college found that about 4,400 clergy members, or about 4 percent the clergy population, had been accused of abusing more than 10,000 minors between 1950 and 2002.


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