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Milwaukee Diocese Loses Bid to Get Out of Molestation Suit

October 03, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer and William Lobdell | Times Staff Writers

In a decision that could affect scores of lawsuits involving alleged sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests, a California appeals court has concluded that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee can be held liable for failing to disclose a priest's child molestation conviction before he moved to an Orange County church and allegedly offended again.

Siegfried Widera moved from Wisconsin to Orange County in 1976 after allegations that he sexually molested boys he met while working as a priest near Milwaukee. Three years before the move, Widera had pleaded guilty to molesting a boy who was a member of his church in Port Washington, Wis.

Before Widera's reassignment, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee informed the Diocese of Orange that Widera had a "moral problem having to do with a boy in school" and had repeated the misconduct. The letter did not mention Widera's conviction.

While in Orange County, Widera allegedly molested two boys he met at St. Justin Martyr Parish in Anaheim, where he served from 1977 to 1981. He also allegedly molested another boy while at St. Martin de Porres in Yorba Linda in 1985. The alleged Yorba Linda victim, now an adult, sued both the Orange and Milwaukee dioceses in 2002.

The Milwaukee Archdiocese argued that it could not be held civilly liable in California for conduct by one of its former priests. Attorneys for the alleged victim maintained that the Milwaukee Archdiocese is liable because it sent Widera to California without fully disclosing his past and with the knowledge he might offend again -- an argument that was upheld Tuesday by a three-justice panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.

"The Milwaukee Archdiocese sought to rid itself of Widera by sending him into California knowing he was a pedophile and had been convicted in Wisconsin of sexual perversion against a boy," Justice Richard D. Fybel wrote in a unanimous opinion.

The decision is the first time a California appeals court has ruled on whether Roman Catholic Church officials from another state can be held liable for failing to disclose past misconduct and could affect many other cases in California, attorneys said. Unless overturned, it is binding on state courts statewide.

"What the decision means is that out-of-state dioceses that intentionally move a known pedophile to California [are] going to be held accountable," said Katherine K. Freberg, attorney for the alleged victim.

The appeals court concluded that the Milwaukee Archdiocese could have done more to warn Orange County church officials.

A Milwaukee Archdiocese spokesman was uncertain if the decision would be appealed.

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