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Editorial: Where, sadly, the buck stops

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 18, 2006

Individual parishioners aren't named as defendants in 10 lawsuits winding their way through California courts involving allegations of clergy abuse by two priests who once worked in the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese.

In a very practical sense, however, every one of the area's 700,000 Catholics might as well be named in the suits. That's because it's difficult to separate the institution from its parishioners. That's the nature of churches.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan made the point recently, girding parishioners for the possibility of "staggering financial consequences" in the event of judgments against the archdiocese.

In a perfect world, parishioners would be held harmless. There would be no trickle-down effect from declaring bankruptcy, no closing of parishes or selling of church assets. Alas, it's not a perfect world. If it were, priests would not have molested children and church leaders would not have kept them in the priesthood after they did so.

Nonetheless, our hope is that, if these suits go against the archdiocese, 1) it is able to avoid bankruptcy (its insurance carriers should recognize a responsibility here) and 2) parishioners be spared as much duress as possible.

Ultimately, though, if courts find principals in the archdiocese moved known molesters to California to molest again, the archdiocese should be held accountable.

To the extent that individual parishes can legally shield their own assets, they should. But a church and parishioners who expect unity on so much - on doctrine and teachings, for instance - cannot credibly reason that unity is out the window when adversity strikes.

If these judgments go against the archdiocese, it will be because the courts will have found some culpability in church leaders - notably former Archbishop William Cousins in the case of Father Siegfried Widera, charged with 42 counts of child abuse in California and Wisconsin. One lawsuit charges that Cousins allowed Widera to continue as a priest here despite the fact that he had been convicted of sexual perversion involving a 14-year-old boy.

The California lawsuits proceed because the California Supreme Court ruled that Milwaukee's archdiocese could be sued for allegedly sending two known abusive priests to that state, the other allegedly being Franklyn Becker. That California ruling contrasts sharply with a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that made it exceedingly difficult - if not impossible - to sue the church here for failing to supervise abusing priests.

The California court got it right, though the Wisconsin Legislature can correct the Wisconsin court's bad ruling by enacting a one-year window in which victims of clergy abuse here could still sue, regardless of statutes of limitation.

We realize that judgments against the Milwaukee archdiocese would occasion difficult choices and perhaps spread pain to parishioners who were not in any sense a party to wrongdoing. But we are cognizant also, as the archdiocese has long since become, that the pain of these victims demands redress and remedy.

For better or worse, in the mostly secular world in which churches coexist, the courts are a proper avenue for that.

From the July 19, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel