MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Milwaukee's Roman Catholic archdiocese will ask a judge on Thursday to throw out hundreds of sexual abuse claims that have thrust it into bankruptcy, triggering a court battle and rekindling anger at the church's mishandling of abusive clergy.
The aggressive stance taken by the archdiocese reminds victims' advocates how leaders of the U.S. church long resisted pleas to deal harshly with offenders and fairly with victims during the decade-long scandal.
It also contrasts with earlier church bankruptcies where most victims' claims of abuse were acknowledged and compensated, lawyers and experts said.
In court papers, the Milwaukee archdiocese is arguing in three test cases that the claims should be tossed out either because the abuse or church cover-up occurred too long ago, involved perpetrators such as a choir director who were not direct employees of the church, or involve victims who had already obtained settlements.
If U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Susan Kelley rules in the church's favor, only 17 claims would remain out of 574 lodged against the archdiocese, said James Stang, a lawyer representing a committee of claimants.
"It's not very pastoral of them to do," Stang said of the church's objections to the bulk of claims.
He said the archdiocese was utilizing Wisconsin's strict application of the statute of limitations, which limits how long after the crime claims can be filed.
"It strikes me as heinously duplicitous," said attorney Jeff Anderson, who has handled scores of clergy abuse cases and represents victims in the Milwaukee bankruptcy case.
"On the one hand the archbishop invites every individual who has been harmed and sexually abused to come forward to make claims with promises to be treated with respect and a measure of justice. And as soon as they do, he brings in a motion to pour salt in the wounds to have the claims thrown out."
When the archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January 2011, Archbishop Jerome Listecki cited the financial drain of settling with hundreds of claimants while apologizing to the victims and acknowledging missteps by the church in dealing with abusers.
Tens of millions of dollars are at stake, with claims totaling more than $100 million.
Milwaukee is the eighth American diocese to declare bankruptcy, with the first three filed in 2004 in Portland, Oregon; Tucson, Arizona; and Spokane, Washington. Altogether, the U.S. church has paid out more than $2 billion in settlements, and the abuse crisis has spread around the world.
Other church bankruptcy cases were not as adversarial in resolving abuse claims as Milwaukee's may turn out to be, said Jonathan Lipson, a University of Wisconsin law professor.
"I think it's a pretty aggressive position at this point," Lipson said, noting the archdiocese's objections to claims come so soon after last week's deadline for filing claims.
An archdiocese spokesman, Jerry Topczewski, said the six-year statute of limitations for fraud has passed in all three of the test cases. Fraud is alleged if church officials withheld knowledge about an abusive clergyman.
"Unfortunately, because you're in a legal proceeding, you have to do things that people from the outside say, 'Oh, you're unfeeling,'" Topczewski said.
He said the archdiocese is pursuing its goal to emerge from bankruptcy with a plan of reorganization, which requires it to know who its creditors are and roughly what they are owed.
The archdiocese began publicizing the names of offending clergy in the years after the abuse scandal first made headlines in Boston in 2002. There are 44 names of offenders on the archdiocese's website, 19 of them deceased. Many of the claims date to the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, which could doom them.
For victims whose claims are rejected, the archdiocese has asked the judge for permission to put an initial $300,000 into a "therapy fund" to pay for counseling.
"We're trying to do the right thing, because we're the church. Tell us the answer about who gets to be in the (bankruptcy) proceeding. But let us still do our ministerial job," Topczewski said.
The archdiocese dealt with explosive charges in March 2010 against the late Rev. Lawrence Murphy, who had molested some 200 deaf boys over two decades. In Murphy's case, Anderson has sought to push charges of a church cover-up up to the Vatican and Pope Benedict, who formerly was in charge of the Holy See's disciplinary arm and interceded with the church in the case.
Stang contended the Milwaukee archdiocese has not been dealing fairly, citing a transfer of more than $50 million from church accounts to a Catholic cemetery fund, ostensibly for upkeep. A like amount had earlier been sought by abuse victims.
"The dynamics of these cases vary. They tend to be determined in part by the temperament of the lawyers as well as the temperament of the claimants," Lipson said.
The claimants are hurt and angry in Milwaukee, an archdiocese with 633,000 Catholics.
"This has turned me away from the Church," said life-long Catholic Adele Kotowski, 59. She had attended church regularly but stopped a few years ago when the abuse crisis became public, though she continued sending her granddaughter to a Catholic school.
The bankruptcy halted a process that many victims have been insistent about: full disclosure of the crimes and the cover-up.
"Among our clients, it was unanimous that until they come clean, until there is a disclosure and until there is exposure, there can't be closure and we wouldn't settle with them," Anderson said.
The U.S. bankruptcy court case number is 11-20059.
(Reporting By Geoff Davidian and Andrew Stern; Editing by Eric Walsh)