Judge could rule on critical archdiocesan sex abuse claims
The judge in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee bankruptcy could decide as early as Wednesday whether to throw out 10 claims of men and women who allege they were sexually assaulted by priests or others representing the church.
The archdiocese has not disputed that the 10 were abused. However, it argues it is not required by law to compensate them for a number of legal reasons, including the lapse in the statute of limitations.
Attorneys for the survivors reject those arguments.
“This is just the latest attempt by the archdiocese to hide behind the passage of time instead of treating survivors fairly,” said Michael Finnegan, whose firm represents six of the victims whose claims will be heard Wednesday, and most of the bankruptcy’s 570-plus sex-abuse claimants.
Archdiocese spokesman Jerry Topczewski said the church has been clear from the beginning that it would not pay claims ineligible under the law.
“It’s not fair to the people who should be compensated to include those who shouldn’t,” he said.
Wednesday’s hearing is the latest battle in the costly and contentious bankruptcy filed by the archdiocese in 2011 to address its sexual abuse liabilities. Victims allege the archdiocese defrauded them by moving problem priests from post to post without telling families they were a danger to children.
The church has filed a reorganization plan that would set aside what is now about $5.1 million to compensate 128 victims of diocesan priests whose names appear on the its website, www.archmil.org.
But U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley ruled last June that she did not have jurisdiction to approve the plan while key questions in a related lawsuit, over $60 million the archdiocese holds in trust for its cemeteries, are pending before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Kelley has moved ahead on other issues. The judge said she would withhold her decisions on some questions until after the 7th Circuit rules, to cut down on costly appeals.
But she has suggested she would rule Wednesday on at least some of the 10 claims outlined in a request for summary judgment filed by the archdiocese.
Those claims involve:
■ Two victims the archdiocese says aren’t eligible for compensation because their prior lawsuits against the church were dismissed by a state court.
■ Two others abused by individuals the church does not consider its direct employees. One case involved a former therapist with the nonprofit organization that would become Catholic Charities; the other involved two members of a religious order, a Capuchin brother and priest, who worked at St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary.
■ Six victims the archdiocese says cannot prove fraud because they were the first to report abuse allegations against their respective molesters.
Lawyers for the survivors say the archdiocese knew or should have known that the priests in question — including some of its more notorious pedophiles — were a problem.
They argue, among other things, that:
■ The archdiocese does have a supervisory role over religious orders that operate locally.
■ The statute of limitations on fraud, which begins ticking when the victim has reason to believe he or she was defrauded, has not yet expired for those survivors.
■ Many of the issues are questions of fact, not law, that must be decided at trial.
Monica Barrett, who alleges she was raped by the late Rev. William Effinger at the age of 8, is one of the two whose prior lawsuits were dismissed in state courts.
Barrett said her case was never heard on its merits — it was dismissed by a state court under the statute of limitations for negligent supervision — and she would like her day in court.
“I think every survivor has the right to hold the archdiocese accountable for their experience,” she said.