WI archdiocese faces new type of lawsuit:
By GINA BARTON - Journal-Sentinel
Thursday, February 10, 2005
A priest convicted of child molestation abused another boy while
on court-ordered probation in 1976, yet officials at the Archdiocese
of Milwaukee didn't notify police, according to archdiocesan records
filed Thursday in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. Instead, church
leaders persuaded the boy's mother to stay quiet and transferred
the priest, Sigfried Widera, to California, the records show.
Had they spoken up, Widera - now deceased - could have been sent
to prison on a probation violation, rather than to two parishes
in California, where he reportedly molested at least nine other
The internal archdiocese documents, divulged as part of a lawsuit
in California, are the basis of a civil fraud suit filed here Thursday
on behalf of an alleged victim when Widera was at St. Andrew Parish
"These documents of conspiracy, deception and fraud show that
church officials, at the very highest levels, conspired to keep
parents, pastors, and most of all the police from intervening and
saving children like myself," said Sharon Tarantino, who said
Widera abused her in 1971.
No one at the archdiocese would discuss the suit, but a written
statement said that "all allegations of sexual abuse of a minor
received by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are immediately reported
to the appropriate civil authorities." The statement also says
the archdiocese "continues to work proactively toward resolution
of any issues brought to us by victims/survivors of sexual abuse
as a minor by diocesan clergy."
That wasn't the case in the 1970s, according to the lawsuit. The
most telling documents filed with it are notes kept by the archdiocese
ombudsman at the time, the Rev. Donald Weber, identified by attorney
Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who filed the lawsuit.
After Widera confessed to abusing the boy while on probation, Webber
told him, "I would try to keep the lid on the thing, so no
police record would be made." The notes go on to say that the
boy's mother "is separated from (her) husband and feared reprisals
from Church if she would go to police."
Instead of assuaging those fears, Weber worked with the boy's therapist
to "convince her not to go to police, if Church removes (Widera)
from parish, and gets him help, as well as counsels the boy,"
according to his notes.
Reached Thursday evening, Weber, now 82, said he had no recollection
of the notes and was unable to discuss the case.
The suit was filed on behalf of a different boy, identified only
as John Doe. Anderson, his attorney, said Doe was a St. Andrew's
altar boy between the ages of 5 and 8 when Widera molested him in
the mid-1970s. The suit accuses the archdiocese of fraud and negligence
because officials there did not inform the boy or his family about
Widera's criminal conduct and did not supervise Widera properly.
The plaintiff is in his 30s and still lives in the Milwaukee area,
Anderson said. He remains in therapy, according to the suit, which
also seeks monetary damages. More important, Anderson said, his
client wants church leaders held accountable.
Widera was serving at St. Mary in Port Washington in 1973 when
he pleaded guilty to a felony then called "sexual perversion."
According to the criminal complaint, during a car ride with Widera,
a young boy had oral contact with Widera's penis. Prosecutors recommended
a five-year prison term, but a judge sentenced him to three years'
probation, according to court records.
Shortly after sentencing, Widera was transferred temporarily to
St. Andrew's in Walworth County. Several parishioners, including
the vice president of the school board, wrote to the archdiocese
asking that Widera be allowed to stay, according to court records.
"The children in our school literally follow him around; he
is so kind and shows so much interest in them," the school
board officer wrote.
Rev. John J. Theisen, executive secretary of the archdiocesan priests'
personnel board, wrote back: "We are happy to hear that he
is doing well and shows so much interest in the children."
By late June of 1976, Widera was an associate pastor at St. Andrew.
According to Webber's notes, then-Archbishop William Cousins called
Webber about reports that Widera had molested a 10-year-old St.
Andrew's altar boy on a fishing trip.
"Widera admitted that he made 'a slip,' " Webber's notes
say. ". . . incident happened in lake while swimming, also
next day in sacristy before Mass."
Six months later, Widera went to California, where he was assigned
to churches in Buena Park and Anaheim. Milwaukee archdiocesan staff
told church leaders that he had a "moral problem having to
do with a boy in school."
The Diocese of Orange County in California recently reached a record
$100 million settlement with nearly 90 victims of clergy sexual
abuse there - nine of them alleged victims of Widera. The nine also
have cases pending against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for sending
Widera to California in the first place.
The Milwaukee archdiocese is facing two additional sexual-abuse
civil suits in other parts of California involving two other priests,
and another case in South Dakota, for the alleged sexual abuse of
a girl in Wisconsin by a South Dakota priest who ministered here.
Civil lawsuits have helped open church documents to public inspection
in some other parts the country, most notably in Boston, the epicenter
of the sexual abuse crisis. When the Boston Globe in late 2001 successfully
challenged a judge's confidentiality seal on documents in several
suits filed against one priest there, the resulting coverage sparked
investigative efforts nationwide.
In Wisconsin, however, state Supreme Court decisions in the mid-1990s
said church leaders could not be sued for negligence in supervising
the actions of clergy. But late last year, the current state Supreme
Court agreed to take up a case that challenges that position.
Thursday's suit is different because it alleges fraud in addition
to negligence and because it includes documentation, Anderson said.
"Fraud is the most serious civil allegation that can be made
or brought. It makes them complicit in the crimes of Widera,"
Anderson said he intends to ask Milwaukee County District Attorney
E. Michael McCann to review the records to see if criminal charges
against any church leaders are warranted.
Widera stopped working in churches in 1985, when a California parishioner
complained that he had acted inappropriately with her two sons,
according to media reports. Widera left California and joined the
family business, Tucson Container Corp., in Arizona. In 2002, he
was charged in Milwaukee County with nine felonies for sexually
assaulting three boys who attended St. Mary Help of Christians in
West Allis. Criminal charges in California followed, for a total
of 42 counts. After that, Widera became a fugitive.
In May 2003, U.S. marshals tracked him to Mexico. As authorities
closed in, Widera jumped out the third-floor window of a hotel and
Tom Heinen of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this