$16M settlement reached in priest abuse

Associated Press/September 1, 2006
By Emily Fredrix

Milwaukee — The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has agreed to pay more than $16 million to settle sexual abuse claims involving 10 victims in California and two priests, one transferred there by the archdiocese, church officials said Friday.

Half the settlement will come from insurance, the archdiocese said. The deal was reached after two days of court-ordered mediation.

"Our hope, always, is to continue our progress in reaching resolution with anyone who was a victim of clergy sexual abuse," Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan said in a statement. "We believe this agreement brings closure to all cases in California and, hopefully, provides healing for victims/survivors."

Nine claims were against Siegfried Widera. The other was against Franklyn Becker, who worked in California and has since left the priesthood, the archdiocese said.

The Milwaukee Archdiocese had transferred Widera to California in 1981, knowing the priest had a history of abuse. He was facing 42 counts of child molestation in the two states when he died in 2003 after leaping from a hotel balcony in Mexico.

Differences between California and Wisconsin law allowed the victims in California to sue the archdiocese years after the alleged abuse, while the Wisconsin victims could not.

In Wisconsin, an appeals court ruled Tuesday that the six-year statute of limitation had expired, even though the accusers had documents showing the archdiocese quietly transferred Widera from one parish to another after a 1973 conviction on sexual perversion. The accusers argued that the archdiocese defrauded them by concealing priest's history, but the court ruling the clock started with the last assault.

Peter Isely, a Milwaukee leader in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the California action "sort of a mixed blessing."

"You have a small handful of victims in California of Milwaukee priests being able to receive some kind of justice where a vast majority of victims of these priests cannot," he said.

A statement from the California offices of Freberg and Associates, which represented eight of the victims, praised the $16.65 million settlement and said the victims appreciated meeting with Dolan after the settlement had been reached.

The firm said one boy was abused over several years, including during a trip with Widera. Another claimed he was abuse starting shortly after his father died. Several instances of abuse happened while the boys were to be praying with Widera.

"No plan of prevention will be successful unless there is full recognition and acknowledgment of the harm that comes to every child that suffers at the hands of sexual predator," the law firm said. "This first step of reconciliation is perhaps the true value of any settlement."

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