028: “SLAPP” Him Around

Stella Case No. 028, Originally Published: 8 January 2003

Forget the more recent barrage of press coverage: lawsuits against the Catholic church over priests molesting children in their flock are not particularly new. In 1990, John Ramstack received $65,000 to settle a case against Fr. David Hanser, now 70 and retired. The charges were tough to ponder: Ramstack and three brothers say Hanser molested them over a period of years at his lake cottage in Merton, Wisc.

The out-of-court settlement agreement, which was also signed by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, required that the Ramstack brothers stay silent about their case — they couldn’t go public when the more recent allegations surfaced in cities across the nation. On the other side of the coin, Fr. Hanser agreed not to work or volunteer near children.

Fr. Hanser, looking upon prey with lust in his heart.

After the more recent scores of cases stretching from Boston to Los Angeles came to light and put the church in crisis, the Ramstacks say they learned Fr. Hanser was still working near children, as a chaplain at several hospitals. They say they called a church bishop to complain, but their call was ignored.

Since they figure Hanser had broken his part of the agreement, the Ramstack brothers went public against him, giving an interview to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the years of abuse they suffered at the hands of a man who was supposed to be giving them spiritual and moral guidance. They also sued Hanser for breach of contract — for working near children despite their settlement agreement.

“It’s up to the church to decide where he works,” says John Schiro, Hanser’s attorney, denying that the priest had broken the secret agreement. He says if the Ramstacks had a problem with Hanser’s actions, they should have complained to the Archdiocese. What about the ignored phone call? “I’m not aware that they ever complained to anybody” other than the newspaper, he said. The Ramstacks were the ones guilty of breaking the agreement, he says, by suing for breach of contract, since that revealed the charges against Hanser.

Fr. Hanser has thus now sued John Ramstack for revealing the contents of their secret agreement. The suit asks for the return of the $65,000 paid in the 1990 settlement, and a dismissal of the Ramstacks’ case.

The Ramstacks’ attorney, Timothy Clark, says barring the Ramstacks from suing Hanser for working near children is “against public policy, if not unconscionable.” Further, he notes, after the nationwide molestation scandal broke, the Milwaukee Archdiocese “publicly stated that they will not enforce any of these [confidentiality] agreements” that Hanser is asking the court to enforce. Indeed the church does not back Hanser on his counter-complaint; “The Archdiocese does not encourage or support countersuits by priests,” says Kathleen Hohl, Archdiocese of Milwaukee communications coordinator, but adds they cannot control what priests do “as individuals.”

But Waukesha County Circuit Judge J. Mac Davis says it may be necessary that the Archdiocese explain the terms of the secret settlement, since it signed the agreement — bringing it into the middle of the dueling lawsuits, even though both Ramstack and Hanser want them to keep out of things. When the story broke, Hanser retired from his hospital work, and the Archdiocese ordered him to refrain from conducting any ministry.

It is unconscionable for anyone responsible for the well-being of children to abuse that trust, especially sexually. It is a disgrace for them to be allowed to sweep their crimes under the rug and be given a new assignment where they can start their abuse anew on fresh victims. When caught, penitence is in order, not a lawsuit that tries to slap down the accuser and, by extension, put other victims on notice that they better keep their mouths shut too, or else. It is time for church pedophiles to be brought to justice, not for them to abuse the courts in an attempt to force their victims to remain silent.

Sources

  • “Priest in Abuse Case Sues His Accuser”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 20 December 2002
  • “Judge Calls on Church to Explain Settlement”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 7 January 2003

Case Status

Researching case status, I found this: “The mother of three more sons abused by Father Hanser met with the priest in April of 2002. ‘He showed no remorse,’ she commented. ‘He said if he offended us, he was sorry.’ The priest said he had been ‘immature’ at the time he was sexually assaulting her children. After the meeting the priest wrote the family. In the past, [he wrote,] he had been ‘selfish.’ ‘I ask for your forgiveness in a spirit of confidentiality.’” (Emphasis added, from bishop-accountability.org)

In 2009, again brothers (this time two) sued Milwaukee Archdiocese over sexual abuse by Fr. Hanser. “After so long, I can almost forgive Hanser,” said David Neels. “But I can’t forgive the fact that someone knew this was going on and covered it up.” Their suit noted that they found complaints about the pedo priest were filed with the Archdiocese as early as the 1970s, and yet nothing was done.

Then there’s this pathetic bit. In a report released by the Wisconsin State Senate in 2003, a total of 58 priests were revealed to have been accused of sexually abusing children while serving in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Archbishop Rembert Weakland admitted allowing priests guilty of child sex abuse to continue as priests without warning parishioners or alerting the police. Weakland stated in his autobiography that in the early years of the sexual abuse scandal, he “did not understand that child sexual abuse was a crime.” (!!)

Weakland himself retired in 2002 after it was revealed that in 1998, he paid $450,000 to a man who had accused him of date rape years earlier! Church money, I suppose? After all, there’s that vow of poverty — but then again, abusive priests seem to think nothing of breaking their vows. It’s like they don’t even believe in the Hell they preach about. Huh.

A police investigation found Hanser molested at least a dozen boys starting in the 1960s. None of the cases resulted in criminal charges due to the state’s Statute of Limitations. But in 2002, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the church can be sued for fraud if victims show it was aware of misconduct, and did not take appropriate action — which is what apparently enabled the Neels’ suit. The Milwaukee Archdiocese complained it could be bankrupted by such lawsuits (awwwww!) because of a ruling in yet another case in 2008 that their insurance company could refuse to cover intentional fraud. Well too bad: they shouldn’t have committed intentional fraud!

As far as the Ramstack case, they prevailed: Hanser paid those brothers an undisclosed settlement in 2003, some of which the victims directed to a local Child Abuse Prevention Fund, which I think is brilliant.

Update Source: “Two Brothers Sue Archdiocese, Saying Priest Assaulted Them”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 8 September 2009

Letters

The Chicago Cubs Case probably generated more mail than any other case to date.

George in California: “If the Cubs had been so stupid as to go after private citizens watching from their own overlooking apartments/condos, then sure, hold them up to ridicule — there’s no law or rule about what we watch from our kitchen windows. The key difference here is that these enterprising bar owners were charging admission to view a commercial event for which they had not negotiated any rights.”

First you say there’s no law or rule about what you can see from your window, but then you argue that the Cubs should be able to regulate what you see from a rooftop. What’s the difference? Because they’re charging for the patrons to be there? Then every rooftop restaurant that didn’t create the view the patrons see is at risk. No: there’s got to be reason applied here! A public view is a public view. The Cubs are in an unfortunate situation since Wrigley Field is a National Landmark, and they can’t build the walls higher to block the view. Oh well! Too bad for the Cubs: that’s the way it was when the owners bought the team. If they don’t like it, they should move. But to say a portion of a public view is proprietary and people can’t look — or businesses can’t have patrons on their property look — is outrageous.

Dave in Massachusetts: “I think I have to agree with the Cubs on this one. We are not talking about a private citizen climbing up on his roof to see a game we are talking about a business *selling tickets* to see a baseball game. Obviously the Cubs can’t prevent anyone from having a view of Wrigley Field but it does seem reasonable that they can prevent anyone from profiting from it. It would be like me putting the Stella Awards on a web server and then charging to let people read them.”

No, that would be completely different, Dave. In that case, you would be making a copy and offering it for distribution. The bar owners are not committing any trespass or copying to enable their customers to see the game from their premises. The fact is, there is a view of the field from the roofs, and the bar owners are letting customers sit there and see what can be seen from there. If they were intercepting the game broadcasts and selling (or giving away) copies, that’s quite clearly a copyright infringement — and that’s what you are arguing. But that’s not what they’re doing.

Jim in Illinois (but not Chicago): “Because the businesses around Wrigley Field are charging so much for letting people watch the games from their roofs, I tend to agree somewhat with the Cubs’ owners. If the businesses were providing the view for free and only charging for ‘refreshments’, that would be a completely different story.”

It’s either right or it’s wrong, Jim. The amount being charged is immaterial. If the Cubs are being damaged, letting people onto the roof to see it for free doesn’t lessen the damage, which is why “I didn’t charge anything for the copies” is not a valid defense for copyright infringement.

To be sure, I also got plenty of mail from the other side.

Paul in Georgia: “The Cubs should build a new damn stadium where people can’t watch for free! They have no right to tell people what they can or can’t do on their own property.”

Paul in Ontario, Canada: “The Cubs suit is pretty ridiculous. How to charge someone for a view? If successful, the Cubs could set a precedent for charging to look at something in the public domain.”

David in Pennsylvania: “Since you began the Stella Awards I have been bemused, shocked, and outraged. However, with the story regarding the Cubs I’m just shaking my head in amusement. Baseball’s overhead has become so huge that sellout crowds, television revenue, and overpriced food and souvenirs are no longer enough. Now they want to prevent people from exercising a basic principle of our economy (i.e. capitalism) by suing. Stories like this remind me why I haven’t been to a major league baseball game in almost a decade.”

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

I’m surprised that in my comments in the newsletter where this was published, I didn’t discuss the SLAPP (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”) concept at all. I guess I figured I covered it well enough in Case 012, Pimp Plucked. That said, that wasn’t an actual issue in this case because Wisconsin still doesn’t have an anti-SLAPP law! We’ll see more SLAPP cases later.

Hanser, who was ordained in 1958 and thus starting molesting boys quite early in his career, wasn’t defrocked until 2005. I saw one reference to “the late Father Hansler” without any notation of when he died.

On 17 July 2011 the Archdiocese of Milwaukee launched “a national advertising campaign” to notify sex abuse victims of their deadline to file claims. The archdiocese had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection that January after it failed to reach a settlement with two dozen victims of sexual abuse by its priests. The archdiocese paid financial settlements to claimants funded “through various sources, including insurance, loans and the sale of property,” and funds were set aside to pay for therapy, but if other victims come forward, they’re apparently out of luck thanks to the bankruptcy filing and the Archdiocese having given “fair” notice.

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4 Comments on “028: “SLAPP” Him Around

  1. The RCC as an institution needs to die. As for the Cubs case, I’m amazed (but shouldn’t be I guess) at the number of people who just don’t get it. You are absolutely right Randy – what a nightmare it would be if the Cubs won a lawsuit over this.

    Reply
  2. When is the Catholic church going to figure out that forbidding priests to marry (in direct violation of scripture, by the way) is always going to result in some of them molesting children? You cannot erase a drive that God put in us.

    Reply
  3. While I can see that there may be some cases where they have merit I have never been comfortable with confidentiality agreements. It bothers me that someone who commits a crime or admits to a tort can then make sure they suffer no consequence other than paying what amounts to a (admittedly heavy) fine.

    I recall editorializing on this in later newsletters, but I’m not sure exactly when. But you can bet it’ll be part of a future post here. -rc

    Reply
  4. Dave is half right.
    They are NOT paying a fine.
    They ARE paying a bribe.

    Indeed hush money is a form of bribe. -rc

    Reply

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