A California judge has ordered the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to hand over insurance records and confidential files related to an accused sex-abuse priest who had served in the archdiocese before being transferred to California.
Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman ordered the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to make public 3,000 pages of insurance records and hundreds of pages from the secret disciplinary files of Siegfried Widera.
Lichtman wrote that Widera’s files prove that “priests with known sexual proclivities have been handed off from location to another without regard to the potential harm to the children of the Church.”
The archdiocese had claimed that the documents were protected by third-party privacy rights, the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, and the “confidential business rights of the Archdiocese.”
Some plaintiffs’ lawyers think this sets a precedent for allowing plaintiffs access to confidential files held by dioceses. In the past they only had access to files specifically about the accused priests, but this will allow them to sift through the diocesan file cabinets seeking patterns to show how the dioceses handled allegations of abuse. However, other lawyers disagree that this would have a wide-ranging effect.
Attorney Donald Steier, who represents accused priests, said Lichtman’s order would not have a significant impact on other California cases. He said the order only applies to the files of priests who are dead and even then, only in cases in which the church has not sought protective orders during litigation.
Wideria had been convicted in Wisconsin in 1973 of sexual perversion and while serving probation was accused of abusing another 10-year-old boy. Despite his history, Milwaukee transferred Wideria to California in 1981. “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.”
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