MILWAUKEE — A federal judge ruled Thursday that two claims could move forward against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for alleged sexual abuse by clergy, laying the groundwork for about 570 claims to follow.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests feared that if the archdiocese had been successful on its arguments — that the two claims were beyond the statute of limitations for fraud — 95 percent of the cases could have ultimately been dismissed.
"This is a very decisive victory for victim survivors in this community," said Peter Isely, midwest director of the SNAP.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan Kelley dismissed a third claim Thursday because the man already had entered into a $100,000 settlement. Isely didn't think the other cases involving prior settlements would be affected.
Kelley also ruled the remaining two claimants couldn't argue negligence because the 3-year statute of limitations started at the time of their abuse — in the 1970s or early 1980s.
The attorneys for the archdiocese, Daryl Diesing and Francis LoCoco, said after the hearing they were not in a position to comment because they hadn't spoken with their client.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Julie Wolf said in a statement that they appreciated Kelley's prompt decision.
"The archdiocese is hopeful that it will be able to use the decisions to assist the parties in the negotiation of a plan of reorganization, and to move the Chapter 11 proceeding closer to resolution," she said.
By the Feb. 1 deadline, about 570 people had filed restitution claims — many not available to the public — alleging fraud and negligence by the archdiocese. A day before the deadline, the archdiocese filed motions asking for three cases to be dismissed because they were either filed beyond the statute of limitations, involved someone who was not an archdiocese employee or involved a victim who already received a settlement.
The archdiocese argued that the 6-year statute of limitations was up on the fraud claims. They cited press coverage of alleged abuse in the 1990s and 2000s along with a list naming 43 alleged abused that the archdiocese published in 2004. All of that essentially started the statute of limitations clock, they argued, because it should have spurred the victims to begin investigating fraud.
But Judge Kelley sided with Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan, the lawyers for about 350 claimants. She said there was no evidence that the victims read the articles, and the list didn't provide enough details on when the archdiocese became aware of the abusive priests.
Anderson noted in court Thursday that there were 100 newly identified accused abusers, including 70 priests, that allegedly committed 8,000 acts of sexual abuse within the cases he and Finnegan are representing.
Wolf said they don't have enough information on how Anderson arrived at his assertion, but said they are required to refer any new abuse claims to the district attorney.
"We are bound by the court's confidentiality order and may not discuss any claims, nor should Mr. Anderson," she said.
SNAP's Isley said that the numbers Anderson cited in court were most significant thing to come out of the hearing, calling them "absolutely devastating."
"Our first concern is these offenders, where they are, who they are," he said. "That is a child safety and a public safety crisis as far as we're concerned. ... We would never find out about this without the court," Isely said.
About 60 people filled the small courtroom Thursday for the two-hour hearing, including many who filed claims. Mike Sneesby, 55, of Milwaukee, claims he was sexually abused by an associate pastor at a Milwaukee church in the 1970s.
He said the most important part of claims process is trying to uncover when and what the church knew and what they did about it.
"They have a moral responsibility to be accountable for this and release this for everybody so they can go on from here, that there is some closure in this," Sneesby said.