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WI Supreme Court Could End 1st Amendment Shield for Clergy Pedophiles
Tomorrow’s arguments expected to address controversial 1995 ruling
Justice Prosser recused himself in last week’s case
Legislature ending session without passing reforms
(NB: Clergy abuse victims and family members are expected to be in attendance at tomorrow’s hearing in Madison.)
Madison, Wisconsin, March 13, 2008 -- The Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Thursday morning which could overturn the only 1st amendment legal shield in the United States for clergy sex offenders and religious officials who covered up sex crimes against children.
The previous 1995 ruling, Pritzlaff v Archdiocese of Milwaukee, has barred clergy child sex abuse victims from filing court cases in Wisconsin because such cases would interfere with the practice of religion. No other court in the country has passed such a ruling.
Victims and advocates have long argued that Pritzlaff, in effect, makes Wisconsin the “safest state in the nation for clergy child molesters.” The first amendment, they maintain, protects free speech, not criminal conduct, much less criminal conduct against children.
Upholding Pritzlaff in a 1997 decision, Justice Patrick Crooks wrote that, “A bishop may determine that a wayward priest can be sufficiently reprimanded through counseling and prayer.”
After Pritzlaff, dozens of court cases were dropped or dismissed allowing church leaders, including Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, to seek court costs from victims and their families, even if the priest offender had admitted to sexually assaulting the plaintiff as a child (http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=35324).
Last July, however, the current state high court opened the door to a handful of victims. Reviewing church documents obtained from courts in states where Wisconsin sex offender priests had been secretly transferred, they unanimously ruled that Wisconsin bishops had committed intentional fraud and concealment.
Nearly a dozen fraud cases have been filed against the Green Bay and Milwaukee dioceses. Depositions in these cases are expected to get underway soon. They will mark the first time church officials in Wisconsin will be required to answer questions under oath concerning their knowledge of and participation in child sex crimes.
Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard another clergy abuse case, the appeal of Fr. Bruce Macarthur. Macarthur was arrested and extradited from Missouri to Juneau County in 2004 to face child sex abuse charges. Even though the crimes were committed in the 1970’s the criminal statute of limitations on child sex abuse “tolls” if an offender leaves Wisconsin.
Some 15 clergy who fled Wisconsin after committing child sex crimes have been brought back for prosecution over the past four years, including Fr. John Patrick Feeney of the Green Bay diocese, who is currently serving a 15 year prison sentence.
Documents made public last month show that current WI Supreme Court Justice David Prosser had urged some of Feeney’s victims not to press criminal charges in the late 1970’s while he was DA of Outagamie County. Feeney went on to commit more sex crimes against children in Wisconsin, Nevada and California (http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=714473).
Justice Prosser recused himself from the oral arguments in Macarthur’s case last week, without comment.
The Wisconsin Legislature is also immersed in the clergy sex scandal, with recent cases in Milwaukee and Green Bay again raising public safety concerns.
Lawmakers, however, seem unable to agree on measures that would protect children in religious organizations.
A bi-partisan bill, the Wisconsin Child Victims Act, a measure passed in California and Delaware, would have allowed any child sex abuse victim who missed filing deadlines a three year “window” to bring claims against sex offenders and their supervisors.
Although the act had over 30 legislative co-sponsors, intense lobbying from the state’s Catholic bishops appear to have successfully kept the measure from a vote this session.
SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the nation’s oldest and largest self help organization of clergy sexual abuse survivors, founded in 1988 with over 7.500 members in 61 chapters.
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests