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  Home :: 2006 September :: Accusers in Wisconsin cannot sue archdiocese; those in California can
Dismissal of abuse lawsuits upheld

Accusers in Wisconsin cannot sue archdiocese; those in California can

[Accusers in Australia cannot sue archdiocese; those in USA can] - JohnB

MADISON — In California, people who claim they were abused by formerMilwaukee-area priest Siegfried Widera can sue the Archdiocese ofMilwaukee for transferring him there in 1981 knowing he had a historyof abuse.

Widera's accusers in Wisconsin cannot sue, a state appeals courtruled Tuesday, even though they have documents showing the archdiocesequietly transferred him from one parish to another after a 1973conviction on sexual perversion with a teenager. It was after Widera'stransfer to a church in Delavan when the abuse allegedly took place.

Advocates for victims of clergy abuse say the case illustrates howWisconsin churches have been unfairly shielded from lawsuits whileother states are allowing them to seek justice. They say they willappeal Tuesday's ruling to the state Supreme Court.

The District 1 Court of Appeals said three people who accused Wideraof abuse between 1973 and 1976 while he was a priest in Delavan cannotsue the archdiocese for fraud and negligent supervision because thestatute of limitations had expired. The court also tossed a similarsuit brought by a man who claimed abuse by then-priest Franklyn Beckerin a Milwaukee church in 1982.

A California appeals court in 2003 allowed a case against thearchdiocese's handling of Widera to move forward, blasting churchleaders for "sending a known pedophile into California." A trial thereis pending.

"But the victims here don't have any recourse," said Peter Isely, aMilwaukee leader in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The accusers argued the archdiocese defrauded them by concealingboth priests' history of sexual abuse against children and wasnegligent in continuing to employ them. The six-year statute oflimitations should not have started until recently, when theydiscovered more details about the priests' histories, they argued.

But the appeals court, in a unanimous 3-0 ruling Tuesday, said theclock started ticking on the date of the last sexual assault againsteach victim. The victims should have known they were injured when theywere assaulted, the court said, citing a 1997 ruling by the stateSupreme Court.

"They thus had a corresponding 'duty to inquire' into the cause oftheir injuries no later than the date of the last sexual assault, whichwould have revealed the facts they now assert make the Archdioceseliable," Judge Ralph Fine wrote for the appeals court.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Michael Guolee made a similar argument in dismissing the cases last year.

Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn. lawyer who represents the accusers,said he was disappointed by the ruling, which he vowed to appeal to thestate Supreme Court.

"This outcome, as written today, protects predators and those thatprotect them instead of our children and those in need of protection.Wisconsin is a dangerous state when the law is written and interpretedthis way," he said. "This gives the archdiocese and the bishops a freepass to conceal, to lie and deceive."

Anderson said children cannot be expected to know a priest's actionsare wrong because they are taught to trust priests, he said.

"All they knew was that they were kids and he was a priest," Anderson said. "I don't know how (the judges) can reconcile that."

Isely said the high court would be urged to overturn its 1997ruling, which has shielded the Catholic Church in Wisconsin from manylawsuits.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said church leaders remain concerned about clergy abuse.

"Today's ruling by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals was an issue ofapplying case law to pending cases," she said in a statement. "Thisruling is a legal decision that does not affect the Archdiocese ofMilwaukee's commitment and desire to work with victims/survivors toseek resolution."

Widera was facing 42 counts of child molestation in California andWisconsin when he died in 2003 after leaping from a hotel balcony inMexico while being questioned by police.

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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia