ST. FRANCIS — The Archdiocese of Milwaukee plans to appeal the Nov. 23 ruling by the state’s Court of Appeals that said that the archdiocese’s general liability insurance would not cover claims by some victims of clergy sex abuse, according to archdiocesan spokesman Jerry Topczewski.
By appealing the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Topczewski said the archdiocese hopes for a “final and decisive answer on this question of insurance companies’ involvement.”
In its decision, the court agreed with a trial court’s ruling that because “the representations made by the Archdiocese constitute ‘volitional acts,’ they cannot be considered ‘occurrences’ within the meaning of the CGL (commercial general liability) policy.”
Judge Joan F. Kessler wrote the opinion for the three-judge panel that included judges Patricia S. Curley and Ralph Adam Fine.
“For the purposes of determining whether the allegations in the complaint allow for coverage, the relevant question is not whether the Archdiocese’s actions or inactions constitute failures to act, but rather, whether its actions constitute accidents so as to fall within the realm of covered occurrences. We have already established that the Archdiocese’s actions were volitional acts, not accidents. A ‘failure to act’ analysis is therefore unnecessary,” according to the court’s written opinion.
The decision is a disappointment to the archdiocese, admitted Topczewski.
“Our hope was that we would have been able to keep the insurers involved in the cases; obviously it would give us more resources to work with when trying to settle the financial component of any case,” he said.
Losing the insurance companies’ contributions to any financial settlement “makes the challenge of resolving the cases a little more daunting,” Topczewski said. “When you look back historically at what insurance companies contributed – for example when we resolved cases and lawsuits that were pending in California – they contributed a substantial amount, more than half the settlement that we reached out there. So when you remove that piece from the equation, when you look at just financial pieces, that is a resource we would have hoped to have available to us as we try to reach a resolution with the people.”
Regardless of the insurance companies’ involvement, Topczewski said the archdiocese is determined to resolve the cases.
“We want to resolve any claims people have regarding clergy abuse, whether in court, whether in the independent mediation system or whether they are yet to come forward, and we know there are individuals who fall into each category,” he said. “Our hope is to find a way to resolve the cases.”
A financial component is one aspect of resolving the cases, Topczewski acknowledged. “Certainly the insurance companies would bring resources to that component of a resolution,” he said, stressing that not having that component will not deter the archdiocese in seeking resolution of any of the unresolved cases.
“Our ultimate goal is to resolve any claims against the archdiocese when it comes to clergy sexual abuse, because the ultimate goal is to find resolution for both the individual victim/survivor to move forward, and for the church to move on, and hopefully it will provide a platform for resolution and healing,” he said.
The decision, however, increases the pressure on the archdiocese, noted Topczewski. “Yes, it does increase the pressure to try and resolve these cases (as) a resolution would carry the added benefit of avoiding the additional pain, huge financial costs, lengthy delays and further uncertainty that trials will cause,” he explained.
But Topczewski said that the decision will not impact the ongoing mediation process that began Monday, Oct. 18 in Chicago when the archdiocese entered into mediation with the representative of the 15 victim/survivors of clergy abuse who currently have lawsuits pending against the archdiocese.
“For the archdiocese, at the end of the day, our goal is to seek resolution and we can only do that with the resources we have available,” said Topczewski. “We hope insurance companies will provide some resources to contribute to a financial component of a resolution. Our goal is to keep our focus on the outcome of the mediation.”
In the meantime, however, Topczewski said the archdiocese will continue to work with the “resources we have available. Even when we started mediation, we knew the insurance companies were challenging their involvement, and we’ve always approached this as this is the archdiocese’s issue to resolve. If we have insurance to contribute to that, all the better, but, at the end of the day, we still have to work to resolve these cases to the best of our ability with the resources we have available.”
He added, “As we approach Advent, the season of hope, we hope that we can reach resolution with those who have been harmed.”