Thursday, October 2, 2003
Appeals Court Rules Milwaukee Archdiocese Can Be Sued for Sending Known Pedophile Priest to California
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
The Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee can be sued in California for sending a pedophile priest here, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The archdiocese’s actions in facilitating the transfer of Father Siegfried Widera to the Orange County Diocese in 1981 amounted to “intentional conduct expressly aimed at or targeting California” which the archdiocese “knew...would cause harm in this state,” meeting the test established by the California Supreme Court for specific personal jurisdiction in Pavlovich v. Superior Court (2002) 29 Cal.4th 262, the court’s Div. Three said.
The Milwaukee Archdiocese, the Orange Diocese, and Widera were sued last year by Eric Paino, who claims the priest began molesting him in 1985 while assigned to a parish in Yorba Linda. Widera, also sought on felony charges in two states, died in Mazatlan in May after leaping from a hotel balcony as Mexican police closed in on him.
The archdiocese sought to quash service and petitioned for a writ of mandate after Orange Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Bauer denied its motion.
Writing for the court, Justice Richard D. Fybel said the evidence presented to Bauer justified his conclusion that the archdiocese was trying to rid itself of a problem when it dispatched Widera to California for a “vacation” in 1973 after he was convicted of molesting a boy in Wisconsin. It later transferred ecclesiastical control over the priest to the Orange Diocese.
The archdiocese knew Widera was a pedophile and should have anticipated that he would continue to molest boys in California, Fybel said.
“The evidence supports the conclusion the Milwaukee Archdiocese intentionally sent Widera to California to get him out of Wisconsin where he had been convicted of sexual perversion against a boy and could create further problems for the Milwaukee Archdiocese,” the justice explained. “As the trial court concluded, ‘the evidence is certainly sufficient to show that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee chose to place this troublesome member of its clergy here in California as a sort of lend-lease program with the hope that he would be out of their sight and out of their jurisdiction.’ The evidence supported the conclusion the Milwaukee Archdiocese knew Widera was a pedophile and posed a serious threat of sexually abusing boys in California.”
The justice continued:
“By sending a known pedophile into California, the Milwaukee Archdiocese aimed its intentional conduct directly at this state. The brunt of the harm, indeed all of the harm, resulted in California. Having sent Widera into California knowing he was a convicted child abuser and a pedophile, the Milwaukee Archdiocese reasonably could expect to be haled into court in California to answer for the consequences of its actions.”
Fybel said the archdiocese’s contention it adequately warned the Orange Diocese that Widera’s conduct with boys required scrutiny was irrelevant to the jurisdictional question. Milwaukee church officials told their Orange County counterparts that Widera had had “a moral problem having to do with a boy in school,” that there had been a more recent “repetition” of the problem, and that “further psychiatric treatment is mandated.”
The justice declared:
“The Milwaukee Archdiocese rid itself of Widera by sending him into California, knowing he was a pedophile and had been convicted of perversion with a boy. The Milwaukee Archdiocese’s conduct was intentional and was expressly aimed at California. The Milwaukee Archdiocese knew its intentional conduct would cause harm in California. Thus, the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s conduct satisfied the ‘effects’ test, regardless whether it gave the Orange Diocese ‘fair warning’ of Widera’s prior misconduct.”
Fybel said it was not necessary to find that the archdiocese’s contacts with California caused the alleged molestation of Paino.
Citing Vons Companies, Inc. v. Seabest Foods, Inc. (1996) 14 Cal.4th 434, the justice explained:
“[F]or jurisdiction purposes, the question is not whether the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s forum contacts were the proximate cause of Paino’s injuries, but whether Paino’s claims ‘bear a substantial connection’ to those contacts.”
Justice William F. Rylaarsdam and Presiding Justice David G. Sills concurred.
John P. McNicholas of McNicholas & McNicholas in Los Angeles was local counsel for the archdiocese.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company