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Church in Crisis

Documents in Milwaukee abuse case unsealed


Legal documents previously under court seal detailing sex abuse allegations against a priest have been opened following the request of a newspaper, this time in Milwaukee. The records detail allegations brought against Fr. William Effinger in 1993 and were made open to the public April 4.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel successfully filed a motion to open them following The Boston Globe’s successful Jan. 23 court appeal to open archdiocesan records relating to allegations made against John Geoghan, a former priest accused of molesting over 130 children and now serving a 10-year sentence on one sex abuse charge (NCR, Feb. 1).

The opening of the thousands of pages of documents in Milwaukee came four days before documents were opened in Boston detailing Fr. Paul Shanley’s history of sexually abusing minors (NCR, April 19).

The Journal Sentinel, which first reported on the circumstances in the case of Effinger in 1993, said the documents reveal “legal hardball” tactics employed by the archdiocese including lengthy depositions of victims and, in some cases, demands that plaintiffs pay the archdiocese’s court costs.

One of the victims, Joseph Cerniglia, alleged that Effinger abused him on Holy Saturday in 1979 when Effinger was assigned to St. Francis de Sales Church in Lake Geneva, Wis. Cerniglia, then 13 years old, was an altar boy. Effinger had requested and received permission from Cerniglia’s parents to allow Cerniglia to stay overnight so that the boy wouldn’t have to get up early to prepare for Easter services.

Cerneglia told his parents of the abuse later that day, and they confronted first Effinger and sometime later Archbishop Rembert Weakland.

Though Weakland assured the parents that Effinger would not be allowed to abuse anyone else, Weakland said, according a Washington Post story April 13, “It would be best if we kept this quiet for the kid’s sake.”

It would later be revealed that another allegation of sex abuse of a child by the priest reached Weakland at that time. Yet, after a psychological evaluation, Weakland transferred Effinger to the Holy Name Parish in Sheboygan, Wis., in the fall of the same year.

Over a decade later, Effinger was convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy. In 1996, he died of cancer while in prison.

Weakland decided not to tell anyone at Holy Name of Effinger’s history of abuse. In a deposition, he said, “I deliberately kept it [secret], yes. I didn’t think it should be divulged at that time or it was useful.”

Cerniglia’s 1993 lawsuit was dismissed in 1994 after, records reveal, his parents had sat through lengthy and emotional depositions, when the court ruled that the statute of limitations in the case had already expired. The archdiocese then attempted to collect $4,000 from Cerniglia in legal fees, a charge he has refused to pay.

The documents further reveal that the archdiocese has moved to collect court costs against plaintiffs in other cases brought against Effinger.

Jerry Topczewski, archdiocesan director of communication, told The Washington Post that Weakland would not comment on the unsealed documents. The spokesman said, “The archbishop has acknowledged that not all the decisions he has made were correct, nor would he always do the same thing today.”

Gill Donovan is a writer for NCR. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002