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WI archdiocese faces new type of lawsuit: Fraud


1) Comments from Fr. Glass
2) Archdiocese Phone Log
3) Archdiocese Notes Log
4) Letters from Delavan Parents
5) Widers Conviction
6) Widera Probation

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 children.

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 in Delavan.

"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," he said.

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 died.

Tom Heinen of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests