|Tears flow with
tales of exploitation by clergy
Testimony comes during hearing on bill to tighten
Wisconsin law on abuse cases
By DENNIS CHAPTMAN - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
September 18, 2003
Madison - The stories came painfully, sometimes streaked with
tears pent up for years, as purported victims of clergy sex
abuse pleaded with lawmakers Thursday to give them more time
to pursue justice against those they say exploited them. "It
will never be over for me," said Brenda Varga, 41, of Plover,
who tearfully recounted being molested by a priest in a car
and a rectory bedroom when she was 8 or 9 years old. "I
was 35 before I came to grips with it."
Varga said it took her another six years to summon the courage
to write a letter detailing her experiences to the La Crosse
A parade of people like Varga testified during a daylong
hearing on a bill that would require churches to report allegations
of sexual abuse and would extend the statute of limitations
for filing abuse lawsuits.
Much of the testimony centered on why the measure did not
include a provision giving all past victims a one-year window
to file civil lawsuits even if the statute of limitations
in their cases has expired.
"If you want to see justice for victims, if you want
to see children protected, that's the best way to do it,"
said Barbara Blaine, national president of the Survivors Network
of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
The legislation would extend criminal and civil statutes
of limitations for future clergy sex abuse victims, and would
require clergy and their superiors to report suspected cases
The bill also would give future victims the chance to pursue
criminal charges until age 45, instead of the current age
of 31. It would also allow victims the opportunity to file
civil lawsuits until age 35, rather than the current 20.
Sponsors skeptical of 'window'
The authors of the bill - Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee)
and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) - opposed the one-year
window, saying it would be unconstitutional.
But Rep. David Cullen (D-Milwaukee) told Darling he backs
it, saying that "past abuse must be addressed, and this
doesn't do that."
Peter Isely, spokesman for SNAP in Wisconsin, said a one-year
window - similar to one enacted in California - is not about
"This is about future predators," Isely said, noting
that allowing civil suits in old cases would expose abusive
clergy who are still in the pulpit.
The committees did not vote on the bill Thursday.
Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager and the Legislative
Council told Krusick and Darling in separate memos that the
one-year window would likely be unconstitutional.
But Marci Hamilton, a church-state law scholar at Benjamin
N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, told lawmakers she believes
the window would be constitutional.
"This is a wonderful bill. It's the right bill. It just
doesn't go far enough," said Hamilton, who represents
SNAP. "The church will not offer a legal settlement if
there is not an inducement."
Bishop supports bill
Bishop Robert Morlino of the Madison Catholic Diocese, vice
president of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, supported
the bill as written.
"We as bishops and our church have been profoundly humiliated
by what some have done or failed to do," Morlino said.
"We can only pray that for us as bishops, and for our
church, this humiliation will become a highway to real humility."
Rev. Lucille Rupe, representing the Wisconsin Council of
Churches, also backed the expansion of the statute of limitations
but questioned the one-year window.
Michael Sneesby, 46, told the panel of being molested by
a priest more than 30 years ago at St. Augustine Church in
Milwaukee. In halting, emotion-choked testimony, he graphically
recounted being indecently touched and raped.
In later years, Sneesby said he was wracked with bouts of
depression and tried to commit suicide.
"I thought it was my fault. I didn't tell anybody .
. . He took everything from me. He wasn't going to take my
faith," Sneesby said.