Bill Would Stop Time as Shield for Accused Priests

By Brian Scheid
Norwich (CT) Bulletin
March 10, 2002

A bill that will go before the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee Monday would allow victims of sexual abuse to press criminal charges more than 30 years after the abuse occurred.

The bill would allow police to file criminal sexual abuse charges against priests in Connecticut who have been accused of sexually abusing children. At least three cases pending against the Norwich Diocese, in which the statute of limitations has run out, could be affected if the bill becomes law.

Under current law, criminal charges can be brought against a person who sexually abused a minor for up to two years after that minor turns 18 or for five years after the victim notifies a police officer or state's attorney of the abuse.

Under the bill, victims of sexual abuse would have 30 years beyond the age of 18 to press criminal charges against their abuser.

The bill comes a month after Boston Archdiocese Cardinal Bernard Law turned over to police the names of more than 80 priests suspected of the sexual abuse of children for decades throughout the Boston archdiocese.

Repressed memories

Dr. Nina P. Rossomando, a psychologist in Waterford and past president of the Connecticut Psychological Association, said child sexual abuse often is not reported until after the statute of limitations expires.

"There's a large number of people who don't come forward in the legally mandated amount of time," she said.

Rossamando said studies have shown that individuals who are abused often repress that memory. She said the memory of the abuse could be triggered later in life by anything from the birth of a child to psychiatric treatment.

"I would support it whole-heartedly," Gene Michael Deary of Brooklyn said of the proposed bill. "The longer you can extend the statute of limitations, the better it's going to serve its purpose."

For Deary, the proposed bill might have brought him and his family some closure to a tragic chapter in their lives if it had been passed more than a decade ago.

In 1991, Deary's eldest brother, Thomas Deary III, killed himself at age 44.

Deary said his brother's suicide was the result of mental illness caused by several incidents of sexual abuse in the early 1960s allegedly committed by former Putnam priest Bernard W. Bissonnette.

Trail of abuse

Bissonnette, known as "Father Barney" to the altar boys who served Mass at St. Mary's Church in Putnam, has been accused of molesting scores of boys across the country, according to a file maintained by the Rev. Ron Wolf, the former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

But Bissonnette never faced criminal charges. According to Wolf's file, the priest was sent to more than a dozen parishes across the country. At nearly every one, Wolf's file shows, Bissonnette was transferred after allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused boys.

"Bissonnette is a criminal and he's never faced criminal charges in the state of Connecticut because of the statute of limitations," Deary said. "A passage of time doesn't make it any less of a criminal act."

Bissonnette, who is retired and living in New Mexico, is named in a civil suit pending before the New Mexico Supreme Court. He could not be reached for comment.

He may never face criminal charges in this state because he never returned to Connecticut after 1964.

Effect in Norwich

Allegations against the Norwich Diocese could result in criminal charges if the bill passes.

- In 2000, a unnamed victim filed a civil suit against Richard T. Buongirno, a former Norwich Diocese priest 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 arrived in East Lyme in 1999.

The civil suit was filed because the statute of limitations had expired and the criminal charges had been dismissed.

A similar dismissal occurred in Boston Thursday after a judge threw out two charges of child rape against former Roman Catholic priest John Geoghan, ruling too much time had passed between the alleged assaults and the indictment.

The rapes allegedly occurred in the early 1980s.

- In May 1999, a lawsuit was filed in Middletown by a former alter boy against the Rev. Raymond Jean, last assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Gales Ferry in 1984. The suit alleges Jean committed numerous sexual assaults and acts of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation against an unnamed altar boy beginning in 1973, while serving at Notre Dame Church in Durham.

The civil case is still pending.

- In 1995, twin brothers Matthew and Mark Nutt filed a civil lawsuit against the Norwich Diocese, claiming they repeatedly had been sexually abused by their parish priest, the Rev. Thomas J. Doyle, while he served at St. Bernard Parish Church in the Tolland County town of Rockville in the late 1970s.

Selective applications

Dr. Robert G. Ryder, a psychologist in Willington, said child sexual abuse is often not reported until years after it occurs.

"I think it is common for people to come to think of it very differently than they did as a kid," Ryder said. "Little kids tend to accept what happens to them at that age because they don't know any differently. By the time they report it, it's too late."

Also, with time comes less evidence and crimes become harder to prove.

Connecticut Executive Assistant State's Attorney Jack Cronan said the proposed bill extends criminal prosecution almost to the level of civil prosecution, but he said the bill would be a judicial tool that would need to be used selectively.

"With any crime, the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is to prosecute," Cronan said.

Rossamando said a sexual abuse victim could suffer even more from a long trial and no guilty verdict.

"At some level, the victim gets victimized again," she said.

But Deary said a criminal charge would be the only way he could get closure on his eldest brother's death.

"From a family perspective," he said, "that's the only thing we've ever pursued."


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