|Statue Laws Changing
|News ruling can allow more abuse survivors to sue
|Posted August 5, 2007
Abuse victims renew efforts for civil relief
State court ruling puts focus back on the issue, official says
By Dan Wilson
Post-Crescent staff writer
A recent state Supreme Court decision and the settlement with the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has spurred efforts by activists to get relief for Wisconsin victims of sexual abuse by priests.
Until now, alleged victims have been prevented by the statute of limitations in from filing lawsuits against the Catholic Church in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, efforts are under way to get the Legislature to temporarily suspend the statute of limitations, similar to the window that led to the recent $660 million settlement in California.
The chance of a "window" was opened July 11 by the state Supreme Court when it ruled that abuse victims could sue the church under the fraud statutes. That would make it possible for some suits to move forward.
"This ruling puts the focus on the issue again," said Ted Thompson, executive director of the National Association to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, headquartered in St. Paul, Minn.
The decision sets a high standard for potential plaintiffs, who would have to show that the church withheld evidence of a priest's bad behavior in the last six years the statute of limitations for fraud claims.
Also, they would have to have that evidence in hand.
"What is significant is if you read the decision, the court is saying before you sue the church for fraud you have to have evidence of the fraud," said Brookfield attorney James Smith, who brought the case on behalf of four plaintiffs.
The normal process of filing a suit and then getting documents through the discovery process would not apply.
"We cannot file a lawsuit, get their files and prove it. We have to have it beforehand," said Smith.
Ironically, the settlement of the California cases has pointed back to Wisconsin. Two priests, Franklyn Becker and Siegfried Widera, were both transferred to California from Wisconsin after being moved from parish to parish. Their California files revealed their Wisconsin history.
Widera was convicted of sexual assault and committed suicide in Mexico City.
Becker, 70, was defrocked by the church and continues to live in Wisconsin.
Widera and Becker among 43 priests listed on the Milwaukee Archdiocese Web site as abusers.
Documents found in those California cases are in the hands of Smith, who anticipates he will file fraud-based suits in the near future.
For activists, the court decision provides hope that the winds are shifting in their direction.
"We were working on some legislative language even before the court decision but now we are taking another look at it," said Thompson. "It is clear the Legislature needs to act to fix the inequities in the law."
Thompson said they are pressing ahead on two fronts.
One is a tweak in the existing tort law that would allow plaintiffs to work around the strict interpretation of the statute of limitations.
"It is called the 'delayed discovery' rule and it would allow the victim to have the statute of limitations clock start when the injuries of the childhood abuse are discovered," he said.
"For victims of this kind of trauma there is a significant delay between the time the abuse occurs and the time the victim comes to grips with it and what happened."
Thompson said the delayed discovery rule would put priest abuse suits on the same footing as medical malpractice.
"If a doctor left in a sponge after surgery and you discovered it 25 years later you could still sue, because you weren't aware of the injury until then," he said.
Secondly, Thompson is pushing for a window that would temporarily suspend the statute of limitations to allow old claims to be filed.
"The delayed discovery rule works well for today's cases but it doesn't do anything for all the victims in the past," said Thompson. "The governor's office has issued a statement in support of the concept."
Todd Merryfield, a victim of convicted priest John Patrick Feeney, said he and his brother "would certainly consider" joining in a suit if the law were changed.
Todd and his brother, Troy, were molested at the ages of 12 and 14 by Feeney when he was pastor of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Freedom in the late 1970s. Feeney had been moved around from parish to parish in the Fox Valley area whenever allegations against him arose.
Feeney is serving a 15-year prison sentence for abusing the Merryfields.
"There are just so many victims out there and nothing was ever brought to the attention of authorities," said Todd Merryfield.
"We will never know the full extent of it and those victims can't get any justice unless something like this change in the law comes about."
Dan Wilson: 920-993-1000, ext. 304, or firstname.lastname@example.org