Seeks Dismissal from Sex-Abuse Lawsuit
Priest Accused of Abuse Was Not within 'Scope of His Employment,' Says Lawyer for Church Officials
By Day Staff Writer
The Day [New London CT]
March 12, 2002
If a priest rapes a child, should the bishop and the diocese that employ him be held responsible? Joseph Sweeney, a lawyer representing the Diocese of Norwich, argues that they should not.
"When a priest sexually molests an underage minor, that represents an abandonment of his pastoral duties and, legally, is outside the scope of his employment," Sweeney told Judge Ian McLachlan in Norwich Superior Court Monday.
McLachlan heard arguments on a motion by the diocese for summary judgment in the case of John Doe vs. Richard T. Buongirno.
John Doe is a pseudonym for a young man who is suing Buongirno, alleging that beginning in 1990, when Doe was 9 years old, Buongirno, then the pastor of St. Matthias Church in East Lyme, sexually assaulted him on several occasions.
The diocese and the Most Rev. Daniel A. Hart, Bishop of Norwich, have been named co-defendants and are seeking to be dismissed from the suit.
The diocese is not responsible for the actions of Buongirno, Sweeney argued, because "this case does not allege that Father Buongirno was doing these horrible things in furtherance of his pastoral duties."
Sweeney said that Robert Reardon, the lawyer representing John Doe, would have to prove civil negligence and "wanton, willful misconduct" on the part of the bishop and the diocese to make his case against them.
"If the diocese had knowledge that they had a priest that was a pedophile, and they had knowledge the priest was with young boys in suspicious situations, couldn't that rise to wanton misconduct?" asked McLachlan.
"I don't think so," Sweeney replied. "You have to show consciousness of the acts. Compared to the other issues, that's a no-brainer."
Sweeney argued at length that there was no evidence to show that the diocese could have known about Buongirno's behavior, citing a psychological report written in 1982 that said that while Buongirno showed a "tinge of effeminacy," there was "no concern of homosexuality."
And when the plaintiffs mother complained in 1991 to the state Department of Children and Families, the DCF found "the complaint was unsubstantiated," Sweeney said. "That was the information the bishop was working on.”
And in 1994, when Edward Redmond, a Massachusetts man, came to Norwich to tell the diocese he had a homosexual relationship with Buongirno when Redmond was a teen-ager, the diocese took the precaution of sending Buongirno to the Institute of Living in Hartford for treatment and evaluation, Sweeney said.
After six months, they were told that Buongirno did not represent "any risk to anyone," he said.
The diocese sought a second opinion, Sweeney said, asking a doctor to review Buongirno's medical records and to answer the question: "Should we let him back into the ministry?"
The doctor's answer, he said, was "Yes, it would be unfair to penalize Buongirno for a youthful indiscretion." McLachlan reminded Sweeney that Buongirno would have been in his late 20s at the time.
"Nothing in the contents of those reports suggest that the diocese should not have let him return to the ministry," Sweeney said.
"Yes, the diocese knew Buongirno had in the distant past had an illicit relationship with a teen-age boy, and that there was one other 'one-night stand' with an adult," he said, "but they had no reason to believe that there had been any other relationships."
Reardon, John Doe's attorney, argued that if the diocese had done its job, it might have had reason to believe so. But the diocese, he said, never did a background check on Buongirno before admitting him to the priesthood.
"What we have here is this gentleman, Mr. Buongirno, who has preyed on children all his life," Reardon said. "For three years, he assaulted Mr. Redmond. That did not come to the attention of the diocese when he was accepted by the diocese, but they should have known."
Reardon cited internal memos that suggest the diocese was concerned about the mental state of Buongirno as far back as 1982.
The memos said Buongirno manifested "some characteristics of a paranoid personality" showing "intense introversion" and "confused interpersonal thinking" and that there was some question of his "sexual orientation."
A memo from Monsignor Thomas Bride to then-Bishop Daniel P. Reilly recommended that Buongirno "not be placed in a parish ministry," Reardon said, "but he was placed in a parish ministry."
In response to Sweeney's argument that Buongirno had "abandoned his pastoral duties" when he sexually assaulted John Doe, Reardon argued that Buongirno "was engaged in what appeared to be to everyone pastoral counseling of this young boy."
"A 9-year-old is sleeping in the same bed with a 40-year-old man," Reardon said. "Why was he there? Because he was an altar boy and doing things that purportedly had something to do with the church. ... Mrs. Doe has testified that on one of the nights her son went to the rectory to say the stations of the cross with Buongirno."
It began, Reardon said, "on the night of the black ice. His mother said Buongirno called to say John could stay in the rectory because there was black ice on the road. That's the night the first assault occurred."
John Doe "was by trickery kept in the rectory, slept with this man, and there, horrible things occurred that he still has not recovered from," he said.
Reardon argued that even after Redmond came forward in 1994, the diocese sent Buongirno to another parish, St. John's in Cromwell, where Buongirno was found with a young boy in his room. The diocese, Reardon said, then sent Buongirno to a third parish, where again he was found with a boy in his room.
The diocese, he said, never alerted anyone to Buongirno's history. "The diocese failed to let them know there was a pedophile in their midst."
Ultimately, Buongirno returned to the area, where he once again got involved in the life of John Doe, who was now in high school, Reardon said.
"And the sexual conduct continues," he said. "Now it's become grotesque, not just fondling and masturbating anymore."
John Doe, in a affidavit, said Buongirno became angry when John Doe mentioned his girlfriend, Reardon said.
"Buongirno tried to convince me I was gay," Doe said. "And no one else would want me and our relationship was 'blessed by God.'"
Reardon wasn't able to complete his arguments Monday, because time for the hearing ran out. The case has been continued until a date yet to be determined.
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