Church Defending Itself against Complaints, While Decrying Sex Abuse by Priests

By Associated Press
April 7, 2002

Norwich, CT - The Roman Catholic Diocese in Norwich finds itself in a delicate position.

The diocese, like others across the nation, is defending itself against lawsuits claiming sexual abuse by priests, while reaffirming what it says a "zero tolerance" policy against clergy who commit such acts.

It's a position the lawyer for one accuser finds untenable.

Robert Reardon represents the family of a man who claims that Rev. Richard T. Buongirno abused him for several years. In a lawsuit against the diocese and the priest, they claim the abuse started in 1990 when the boy was 9-years-old and Buongirno was pastor of St. Matthias Church in East Lyme.

It is one of the two pending lawsuits against the diocese, which covers roughly the eastern third of the state and includes 84 parishes.

Buongirno has denied molesting the boy, and Joseph Sweeney, the attorney representing the diocese, has argued that the diocese did everything it could to prevent the alleged abuse from taking place.

Reardon and Sweeney said they expect the lawsuit against the diocese to go to trial, but not at least until 2003. By that time the diocese defense will have stretched more than three years.

Reardon said he believes the case has gone on too long.

"Their defense has been aggressive and it's been inconsistent with what the diocese and the church have been saying publicly," he told the Norwich Bulletin.

The Most Rev. Daniel A. Hart, bishop of Norwich, has said he will not tolorate abuse, calling it a mortal sin, evil and a crime.

But, Reardon said, by dragging out a trial for more than three years, the diocese simply doesn't want to take any blame.

Sweeney was in court last week trying to get the lawsuit thrown out, but says it's not a delaying tactic.

"What do they expect, for us just to lay down and die?" Sweeney asked. "(Reardon) wants us to disregard the issue of legal responsibility and come in and put money on the table, that's what he's saying."

Sweeney argues a principle usually found in corporate negligence suits. The legal concept, "respondeat superior" (Latin for "let the master answer"), holds that employers are responsible for the actions of their employees "in the course of employment."

Sweeney argues that, since Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy, any sexual act involving another person would always fall outside the role of course of their employment - as Sweeney puts it in the Buongirno case, "outside his pastoral duty."

Reardon argues the bishop and diocese moved Buongirno from parish to parish and allowed him to work with young boys even after they had evidence that he may have sexually assaulted a child and had had a sexual relationship with a teen-ager.

In 1994, a Massachusetts man came to then-Bishop Daniel P. Reilly claiming that in the early 1970s, when he was 16 years old, Buongirno molested him repeatedly for nearly two years. Buongirno was one of the man's teachers at St. Thomas More School, but he was not yet a priest.

According to court testimony and documents, Buongirno admitted to Reilly that he had molested the boy and he was treated at the Institute of Living in Hartford. But Reardon argued that diocesan officials had never informed psychiatrists at the treatment center of a 1991 state Department of Children and Families investigation into allegations that the priest had been sleeping with the 9-year-old.

Sweeney argued that the investigation found nothing and that diocesan officials had no duty to report it.

"It was just like someone dialed the wrong number, it was as fundamental as that," Sweeney said. "How often do you get a wrong number and just put it out of mind?"


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