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  Bishop Apologizes to Woman for Priest's Abuse

By Katie Melone
Norwich (CT) Bulletin
May 10, 2002

Norwich, CT - Calling the actions of a deceased priest accused of sexual misconduct "evil," the bishop of the Diocese of Norwich apologized to a former Hampton resident for the suffering she allegedly endured when she was 18.

The apology, contained in a March letter, provides some insight into how a reticent bishop, the Most. Rev. Daniel A. Hart, has directly responded to victims who have recently come forward alleging clergy abuse in the diocese.

"I am sorry for the terrible experiences you have had ... and for the losses you have endured and do suffer even now as a result of his evil actions," the bishop wrote to Diane Smith, 36. "In the name of the Church, I apologize and ask for your forgiveness."

After years of silence, Smith wrote on March 16 to the bishop alleging that, in the 1980s, she was abused by the Rev. James Liberty, who at the time worked as a marriage and family counselor with Catholic Family Services in Norwich.

There is no record of any alleged misconduct in the priest's personnel file, the bishop wrote to Smith. Liberty died in July 1995, months before Hart was appointed to his post.

A spokesman for the diocese said Tuesday the bishop forwarded Smith's complaint to the proper authorities. New London County State's Attorney Kevin Kane said he would not comment on specific cases or whether the diocese forwarded him this specific case.

On Wednesday, the diocese reported to DCF eight allegations of child sexual abuse just a day after the bishop apologized for failing to notify the proper authorities of a letter alleging sexual abuse by two priests in the diocese.

Smith's case differs from the hundreds of sexual abuse cases that have recently rocked the Catholic Church because she was, according to law, an adult when the alleged abuse occurred.

Smith said her age at the time of the alleged abuse shouldn't matter.

"Yes, I was 18, not a child in years, but I was hardly an adult," she wrote in her letter.

According to state statute, if a mandated reporter - which includes the clergy - has reasonable cause to believe a child has been abused, that person must contact law enforcement or the Department of Children and Families within 24 hours.

There is no such statute for adult victims, but the diocese's internal sexual abuse policy, posted on its Web site, states that when a complaint of criminal behavior is alleged and received by the diocese's Office of Internal Affairs, the matter is sent to the state's attorney's office where the incident occurred.

Victim recalls abuse

It was the early 1980s, three years after her brother died, and Smith said she was suffering greatly over the loss. She decided to seek the counsel of Liberty, who was recommended to her by a family member.

In 1979, Liberty, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic religious order in Willimantic, was appointed a marriage and family counselor at Catholic Family Services. The appointment was made by the Most Rev. Daniel P. Reilly, who was then bishop of Norwich.

Liberty made a favorable first impression, Smith said, with his styled gray hair, well-appointed dress and warm manner. He greeted her with hugs and kisses, she said.

"He was handsome, he was charming," she said. "And I think a lot of women were attracted to him."

But then things started to change in their weekly therapy sessions, Smith said. Liberty started to ask for massages and for her shirt to be unbuttoned, and to rest his head in her lap.

"It was slow," she said. "He kind of built up my trust. He told me he would sleep with somebody if it would make them feel better about themselves. And that was my problem - low self esteem."

Smith never had sexual relations with him, but he touched her inappropriately and became verbally abusive, blaming her for arousing him sexually, she said.

"He'd sit in his chair and say, 'What do you expect? You're pacing the floor. That turns me on. You're a whore.'

"I was so convinced it was my fault," she said. "Anyone who goes for counseling is vulnerable to begin with. He was a figure of authority. He was a priest. He acted like he was the one who could make everything right."

Telling her story

In 1996, after keeping the secret for years, she told her therapist about her meetings with Liberty. Nearly six years later, spurred on by widespread media coverage of priest abuse, Smith wrote to Hart, in a sense "going public" with her story.

"I cannot understand why you can't comprehend why victims need to go public with their stories," she wrote to the bishop. "They have suffered silently for years and need this closure. I am saddened by every single one of them ... To begin my healing, I need you to know what happened to me."

Now married with a young child, Smith said, "My life is good." But, with the swirl of new coverage on priest abuse, she is again reminded of the suffering she endured.

"Do you understand what he took from me?" she wrote to the bishop. "He took my self-confidence, my feelings as a woman, my education and most of all, my faith in the Catholic religion. I often think about how different my life would have been had this not taken place. He stole years of my life that I cannot get back."

 
 

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