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Wisconsin Court Allows Clergy Abuse Victims To Sue For Fraud

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Court decisions by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1995 and 1997 closed the door to the courthouse for childhood victims of sex abuse by priests, holding in John BBB Doe v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee that the statute of limitations had expired three years after the last incident of abuse and, in a case called Pritzlaff v. Archdiocse of Milwaukee, that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was not liable for negligent supervision of its clergy because the First Amendment precluded courts from deciding that the Church should not employ sex abusers. Wisconsin is one of the only states in the nation that protected the Catholic Church from sex abuse suits on these grounds.

Yesterday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of clergy sex abuse victims, holding that their cases should not have been dismissed at the threshold on statute of limitations grounds without considering whether the Archdiocese had fraudulently concealed its knowledge of the sex abuse by its priests.

Wisconsin, like many jurisdictions, has a “discovery rule” that allows a tort victim to extend the statute of limitations. In the context of sexual abuse claims, the Wisconsin discovery rule extends the limitations period by the time it takes the victim, acting with reasonable diligence, to discover both that injury was suffered and the identity of the perpetrator.

But efforts to use the discovery rule to allow adult victims of clergy sex abuse to have their claims heard in court have faced tough going. For example, the Wisconsin Supreme Court had rejected victims contentions that delay in taking legal action should be excused because of repressed memory of the sexual abuse.

In yesterday’s ruling, the court concluded that the date of the accrual of the fraud claims is “when the plaintiffs discovered or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have discovered that the Archdiocese’s alleged fraud was a cause of their injuries.”

Hopefully, the plaintiffs will be able to surmount this standard. The plaintiffs in these cases alleged that they were sexually abused from 1973 to 1976, when they were children, by a now-deceased Roman Catholic priest, Siegfried Widera, after he had been criminally convicted of sexually molesting another child and the Archdiocese knew of his conviction. It was after Widera’s criminal conviction that the Archdiocese moved Widera from a parish in Port Washington, Wisconsin, to St. Andrew’s Parish in Delavan, Wisconsin, where Widera molested them.

The plaintiffs also alleged that the Archdiocese was informed that Widera later sexually molested an altar boy at St. Andrew’s Parish and confronted Widera, who admitted he had made “a slip.” Attached to the plaintiffs’ complaint were notes made by the Archdiocese at the time of the assault stating that the Archdiocese would “try to keep the lid on the thing, so no police record would be made” and also that it knew the mother of the boy “feared reprisals from Church if she would go to police.” Later, in 1976, the Archdiocese transferred Widera to California, falsely telling the people in Delavan that he was going on vacation. Widera molested numerous boys after his transfer to California. As prosecutors prepared to file felony charges against him in 2002, Widera fled California. The following year, Widera jumped to his death off a hotel balcony in Mexico as Mexican law enforcement agents were closing in.

These facts state a pretty good case of fraudulent concealment, don”t ya think?

Clergy abuse victims groups lauded the decision as historic, and one that would open the doors to claim by many other victims.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s press release “apologized”:

The tragedy of clergy sexual abuse of children and, perhaps even more, the failure in the past of some within the Church to deal decisively with it long ago, will always be an ugly stain on our history. We renew our apology to all victims/survivors and repeat our sincere effort to support their personal recovery.

The Archdiocese’s statement goes on to say that the Supreme Court decision requires that “the fraud claims should be returned to Milwaukee County Circuit Court for further processing, basically saying that the lower court needed to spend more time reviewing the issue before deciding the statute of limitation question. So, now, all sides will prepare and present information as part of this next step in the legal process.”

Translation: Don’t expect any compensation from us. Quite clearly, the Archdiocese plans to continue its resistance to settlement by hiding behind its statute of limitations defense, arguing that the victims did not act reasonably in waiting so long to make their claims. The victimization continues.