Legal Issues

 Legal Headlines



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 Catholic Diocese.

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 of abuse.

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 past victims.

"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.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests