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Editorial: Justice for Abuse Victims

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June 9, 2005

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Michael Guolee may have felt that state law gave him no choice, but his ruling in two fraud lawsuits involving the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese serves the interests of pedophile priests and not the victims of clergy sexual abuse. That's not how the justice system should work, and it's why the state Legislature needs to approve a legal window that would give victims a chance to find some justice in such cases.

Guolee threw out the cases because, he said, the statute of limitations had run out on alleged assaults by Father Siegfried

Widera, who was accused of molesting children here in the 1970s. But in the 1970s, some church officials worked very hard to make sure abuse cases didn't come to light. Priests were quietly transferred, and victims and families were pressured by church officials to remain silent about the abuse. Widera, for example, was moved to California and was accused of abuse there. He killed himself in 2003.

The transfers, the pressure and the nature of the crimes combined to keep the abuse under a shroud of silence. Victims often feel guilt and shame about the abuse and are reluctant to step forward. But now that victims are finally finding the help and courage to come forward, the courts are telling them it's too late.

Given the special circumstances of this kind of abuse and the coverups that followed, such rulings seem coldhearted. But given the law, one can make an argument that, as Guolee put it, "the plaintiffs had a duty to act on their claims when they were discovered." One wonders what duties Guolee would assign to church officials in protecting victims.

If the courts won't allow victims to seek redress through the legal system, then the Legislature should step in by approving a one-year window during which victims of past abuse could seek just compensation. Peter Isely, director for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said Wisconsin was "alone in the nation" in restricting claims by victims. A spokeswoman for Gov. Jim Doyle says he supports the concept of a window to remove those restrictions. Such a window was proposed but then removed from a clergy abuse bill approved last year.

There is no doubt that the atmosphere in the Milwaukee archdiocese is today dramatically different than it was 30 years ago or that church officials have taken significant steps toward protecting children and helping past victims. But many victims are still understandably seeking redress that only the courts can provide. And Monday's ruling by Guolee shows why it's important for the Legislature to do what it can to provide that justice.

From the June 10, 2005, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel