Diocese Quietly Facing Cases of Priestly Abuse

By Brian Scheid
Norwich (CT) Bulletin
February 24, 2002

The Diocese of Norwich has been named as a defendant in four clergy pedophilia cases, court records show. But unlike his counterparts in Boston and New Hampshire, the leader of the region's 214,000 Roman Catholics has not opened church records on abuse. And, until Friday, the Most Rev. Daniel A. Hart had not spoken on the issue.

New Hampshire's bishop, the Most Rev. John R. McCormack, last week gave prosecutors and the public the names of 14 priests accused of sexual misconduct with children. Earlier this month, in the Archdiocese of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law turned over the names of more than 80 priests suspected of similar crimes.

On Monday, Connecticut's 13 state's attorneys will meet in Rocky Hill to discuss whether they should compel public disclosure of clergy sexual abuse in Connecticut, according to Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey.

Prosecutors' issue

Bailey said some prosecutors raised concerns about developments in Boston, and wished to discuss if they, too, should prompt bishops to release records.

Hart, who served as an auxiliary bishop in the Boston archdiocese before becoming Norwich's bishop in 1995, said he was not familiar enough with the Boston issue to comment on it.

"I don't know that much about it," Hart said. "I don't read the Boston papers anymore, so I don't have enough information to make a prudent judgment on that."

On Friday, in response to questions from the Norwich Bulletin, Hart issued a statement pledging prompt and full investigation of any allegations. But he has declined to comment on whether he would release the names of those who have been accused of assault, and the diocesan communications director said the bishop would have no further comment beyond his two-paragraph statement.

That stance has angered two Windham County men, whose eldest brother committed suicide in 1991, years after he was sexually assaulted by a priest in Putnam. They want the Diocese of Norwich to make public the names of all priests in its jurisdiction who have been accused of sexual abuse.

"Hart could be a hero and step up and do something," said John Deary, 44, of Pomfret. "I don't know why he won't."

Without full public disclosure of sexual assault accusations made against diocesan priests, the brothers said there is no way of knowing how many incidents there have been, or whether initiatives that Hart's predecessor established a decade ago to prevent priests from sexually abusing children, including a toll-free hotline, have been effective.

"The further you dig, the more cases there are," said Gene Michael Deary of Brooklyn, John Deary's brother. "In a couple of weeks in Boston, we've seen hundreds of complaints we never knew existed. Who knows how many more there could be here?"

Diocese in court

Hart, as the head of the Norwich Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., the diocese's legal name, is a defendant in at least four cases, court records in two Connecticut courts and in New Mexico's Supreme Court show.

•The most recent, filed in June 2000 in Norwich Superior Court, names Hart in a suit against Richard T. Buongirno, a former priest of the diocese who served most recently at St. Matthias Parish in East Lyme. In June 1999, Buongirno was arrested on charges that he sexually abused a child shortly after he came to East Lyme in 1990. Buongirno has been laicized, the church's term for formal removal from the priesthood.

Details of the case against Buongirno and the diocese are sealed.

•In May 1999, a lawsuit was filed in Middletown against the Rev. Raymond Jean, who last was assigned in 1984 to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Gales Ferry. The suit alleges that Jean committed numerous acts of sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation on an unnamed child from the ages of 9 to 13, beginning in 1973 while he served at the Notre Dame Church in Durham.

That case is partially sealed, but still is pending.

•The diocese also was a defendant in a 1995 case in which Matthew J. Nutt and Mark D. Nutt, twin brothers who now live in Maine, claimed they were repeatedly sexually abused by their parish priest, the Rev. Thomas J. Doyle, while he served at St. Bernard's Parish Church in the Tolland County town of Rockville in the late 1970s. The brothers, who were altar boys at the time, claimed they told Doyle's superiors, members of The Marianist Society, about the repeated abuse in 1983, but the superiors reportedly did not inform legal authorities.

The Nutts met with Norwich diocesan officials in 1992 and Doyle was relieved of his duties - but only after the diocese transferred him three times from 1976 to 1992, according to the lawsuit.

•The most complicated and longest-standing case is before the Supreme Court of the state of New Mexico. It involves the Rev. Bernard W. Bissonnette, the priest who molested the Dearys' brother, Thomas Deary III.

In December 1998, a New Mexico Court of Appeals found that the Diocese of Norwich could be sued for damages by a New Mexico victim who alleges he was sexually abused by Bissonnette between 1966 and 1968 - after Bissonnette left the Norwich diocese, but while he was still a priest of the diocese and on the Norwich diocesan payroll.

Based on New Mexico's so-called "long-arm" statute, the appeals court found the Norwich diocese was subject to the jurisdiction of New Mexico's courts in Bissonnette's case.

The decision found that since the diocese had sent Bissonnette to a New Mexico treatment center after several complaints of sexual abuse in two local churches, continued to employ him as a priest and received regular reports on Bissonnette's status and whereabouts, the bishop of Norwich was responsible for his actions.

The Norwich diocese appealed the December 1998 decision and the case went before the New Mexico Supreme Court. Oral arguments for that case were heard more than 21/2 years ago, but the Supreme Court has not issued a ruling.

'Father Barney'

Sexual abuse complaints against clergy are nothing new for bishops in New Mexico. Since 1990, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe alone has faced more than 40 cases. The archdiocese's former chancellor, the Rev. Ron Wolf, maintained a file on Bissonnette because of complaints against him there.

That file has become something of a research tool for the Dearys, who have turned their brother's death into a call for greater action by the Catholic Church against pedophiles.

Their cause began in 1991. That year, following a long bout with mental illness and two failed marriages, Thomas Deary III killed himself. He was 44.

"It was pretty clear why Tommy wanted to go to heaven," Gene Deary said. "He believed he'd be more peaceful there than he was here."

The two brothers, part of a Roman Catholic family of 15 from Putnam, blame Bissonnette, their former parish priest, for the suicide.

The priest, known as "Father Barney" to the altar boys who served Mass for him at St. Mary's Church in Putnam in the early 1960s, has been accused of molesting and raping scores of young boys across the country, according to Wolf's file.

This - according to the Dearys, the New Mexico lawsuit, newspaper archives and Wolf's file - is an account of Bissonnette's priesthood:

After schooling at Marianapolis Preparatory School in Thompson, Bissonnette - a North Grosvenordale native - received his training for the priesthood at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield and Christ the King Seminary in St. Bonaventure, N.Y. The 26-year-old Bissonnette was ordained by Norwich's first bishop, the Most Rev. Bernard J. Flanagan, on May 15, 1958. He first was assigned as an assistant priest in Christ the King Parish in Old Lyme, but stayed there less than one year.

He was transferred to St. Michael's Church in Pawcatuck, but remained in that assignment for only three months, after allegations of sexual abuse in that parish surfaced.

He was transferred to All Hallows Parish in the Moosup section of Plainfield. After parishioners complained of "familiarities" with boys, then-Bishop Vincent J. Hines transferred Bissonnette to St. Mary's Church Putnam in June 1962.

It was there that Thomas Deary, then 13, was molested.

In April 1963, after he returned from a fishing trip with Bissonnette, during which the priest later admitted the two engaged in mutual masturbation, Deary told his father he had been molested that day and raped several times earlier.

Seeking treatment

His father reported this to St. Mary's monsignor and Bishop Hines transferred Bissonnette to The Servants of the Paraclete, a monastic order in Jemez Springs, N.M., which operated the Via Coeli retreat center that specialized in treating pedophile priests. Hines suspended Bissonnette from performing priestly responsibilities indefinitely, but gave permission for a priest at Via Coeli to lift the suspension "when you feel it advisable."

According to the New Mexico lawsuit, in August 1964 Hines told Bissonnette he could not hope to get another job in the Norwich diocese. "I am sure you are aware of the fact that your faults are known by the priests of the diocese and by some members of the laity. As a result, there is no pastor here who would be willing to accept you as his assistant."

He suggested Bissonnette "seek a benevolent bishop for whom you could work a year or two."

Unable to find a parish outside New Mexico, Bissonnette met with the archbishop of Santa Fe and, in March 1966, was assigned to a parish in that city while remaining a priest under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Norwich.

In May 1968, priests at Via Coeli wrote to Hines and said Bissonnette had returned to the monastery, citing further "complaints, the nature of which you are all too familiar with." Hines agreed to pay for Bissonnette's further treatment.

Ultimately, Bissonnette was transferred to nine parishes throughout New Mexico, Michigan and Minnesota in the 30 years after he left St. Mary's in Putnam.

At each of the parishes, he left or was forced out after he was accused of sexually molesting one or more children. In 1977, following a four-year leave of absence, Bissonnette took a job at a boy's school in Springer, N.M., but was later removed for reportedly sodomizing several students there.

This pattern of transfers following complaints is similar to the evidence released in the trial of former Boston-area priest John Geoghan, who was sentenced last week for sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy, and faces a host of civil suits and more than 125 accusers. Church officials, including Cardinal Law, transferred Geoghan from one parish to another after they learned of abuse.

Bissonnette retired in 1992 and reportedly still is living in New Mexico. He could not be located for comment.

'Zero tolerance'

After Thomas Deary's 1991 suicide, the Norwich diocese established a "zero tolerance" policy for all diocesan employees accused of sexual abuse.

In 1993, then-Bishop Daniel P. Reilly instituted a toll-free telephone number that allows victims to report incidents of sexual abuse confidentially to the Diocese's Office of Internal Affairs. That number is still in existence and is advertised in pamphlets placed in some churches.

The phone numbers - 1-800-624-7407 or 860-889-4455 - also can be found on the Diocese of Norwich's Web site, under a link to the Office of Internal Affairs.

Gene Deary said he used to call the toll-free number almost daily to see if it was still working.

According to diocesan policy, any complaint of child sexual abuse received by the Diocese Office of Internal Affairs would be reported to the Office of the State's Attorney and to the Department of Children and Families. If the complaint were made against an employee of the diocese, that person would be removed from his post until the accusations were proven true or untrue.

New London County State's Attorney Kevin Kane said the diocese "went to great lengths to develop a policy and implement it." He said his office has received some complaints that have led to arrests. He declined to discuss specific cases.

"Since 1994, the Norwich Diocese has been extremely careful about making sure allegations of criminal behavior involving members of the clergy are handled appropriately," Kane said.

Actually, a diocesan policy requiring the reporting of abuse is unnecessary in Connecticut. Unlike Massachusetts and New Hampshire, all Connecticut clergy are considered "mandated reporters" of child abuse, including sexual abuse, along with medical professionals, teachers and day-care providers.

Names of priests accused of sexual abuse are turned over to law enforcement officials and the Department of Children and Families, but the names are made public only if an arrest is made on criminal charges.

After a DCF investigation, an inquiry within the Norwich diocese takes place and the Diocesan Pastoral Care Committee, made up of church leaders and lay people, reviews the findings.

Gene and John Deary had met with that committee and proposed a set of priorities, but severed their relationship after they said they were lied to about the priest who molested their brother.

'Out of harm's way'

Gene Deary met with Bishop Reilly concerning the newly established Pastoral Care Committee in October 1992 and was told that Bissonnette was a bed-ridden invalid, but could not be located.

Five months later, displeased with the committee's lack of progress in establishing a hotline, forming an outreach program for victims of sexual abuse by priests or informing state police in Connecticut and New Mexico of Bissonnette's abuse, the brothers placed a classified ad in the Norwich Bulletin and other newspapers.

It read simply: "Do You Remember Fr. Bissonnette?" The question was followed by the brothers' phone numbers. [See the ad.]

Within days, they said they talked to nine men who told the same story: Father Bissonnette had molested them.

"They felt guilty their whole lives because of this," John said. "They lived their whole lives thinking they did something wrong."

The Dearys hired a private detective in New Mexico who located Bissonnette in one day. Four days later, the brothers flew to New Mexico.

Walking gingerly with a cane, Bissonnette was not the bed-ridden invalid Bishop Reilly had told them he was, Gene Deary said.

"We were told repeatedly that he has had several strokes, that he can't ambulate, that he has been stricken to a bed for many years and was out of harm's way," Gene said. "I might beat him in a 50-yard dash, but he was ambulating fine."

Reilly, now bishop of the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., could not be reached for comment.

Little discussion

Although the handling of the clergy scandal has attracted national media attention in Boston, just 90 miles from Norwich, local parishioners do not appear interested, several eastern Connecticut priests said.

Several local priests said they were not planning to discuss the issue in their homilies.

"We usually wait for a directive from the bishop," the Rev. John J. O'Neill of St. James Church in Danielson said.

O'Neill said Hart has sent his priests directives on abortion and calls to religious vocations, which have led to sermons on those subjects, but no directive to discuss these child sexual abuse cases has been given.

But during a recent weekday Mass at New London's St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, the Rev. Robert Washabaugh drew parallels from the recent child sexual abuse cases in his homily.

He called child sexual abuse by a priest "incomprehensible." While he did address the issues facing the Boston Archdiocese specifically, he cautioned against the human tendency to label others as evil while rarely examining the sins within.

"All of us in small ways have hurt and damaged one another," Washabaugh said. "We all have to look at ourselves. There's something of that in all of us."

Washabaugh said no member of his congregation has asked him questions or discussed the revelations in the Boston Archdiocese.

"It's not a brand-new issue. It's just surprising that it's visiting us again," Washabaugh said.

O'Neill said all four priests on St. James' staff were trained in Ipswich, Mass., part of the Boston archdiocese, and have discussed the Boston situation at length.

"We're pretty well abreast," O'Neill said.

But O'Neill said even though many of his parishioners read the Boston and Worcester newspapers, not one parishioner has asked him about the issue.

"If this happened in Danielson, Putnam or Plainfield - and if it was a priest they knew - I'm sure they would ask questions," O'Neill said. "But they really haven't. ... I don't think it's an issue for them."

Many parish priests in the Norwich diocese refused to comment on any of the recent news in the Boston archdiocese.

"This is all pending with these allegations," said the Rev. William McNulty of St. Joseph's in Dayville. "There's a tendency to wait and see what's happening."

John Deary said that has been the church's position for too long.

"There's no doubt that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has been covering up these crimes," he said. "Hart cannot claim that he doesn't know what's going on anymore."


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