Jury to Hear Case of Priest Abuse in Conn. Diocese

By Richard Nangle
August 2, 2002
Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette

A priest sexual abuse lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Norwich, Conn., that accuses former diocesan Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of recklessness and negligence, will go before a jury, a superior court judge has ruled.

The lawsuit was filed in June 2000 by a Middletown, Conn., man who is identified only as John Doe. It alleges that former diocesan priest Richard T. Buongirno sexually abused him on several occasions while he was a 9-year-old altar boy at St. Matthias Church in East Lyme, Conn., where Rev. Buongirno was serving. The alleged victim says the acts continued until 1998, when he was in high school.

In 1991, Bishop Reilly, now the bishop of the Worcester Diocese, was notified of an investigation into Rev. Buongirno's actions, but claimed it was a “false alarm,” according to Robert Reardon, the New London, Conn., lawyer who filed the lawsuit.

“It wasn't a false alarm at all,” Mr. Reardon said. “It was a very serious matter.”

The suit alleges that a Massachusetts man told Bishop Reilly that before becoming a priest, Rev. Buongirno sexually abused him repeatedly over the course of three years in the 1970s, starting when he was a 16-year-old student at St. Thomas More School, where Rev. Buongirno was a teacher.

Rev. Buongirno admitted to molesting the boy and was treated at the Institute of Living in Hartford, according to the lawsuit, which says diocesan officials did not tell doctors there that Rev. Buongirno also had been investigated for allegedly molesting Mr. Doe three years beforehand.

Mr. Reardon said Rev. Buongirno later was reassigned to another parish, where he was found with a boy in his room, then was reassigned again, and again was found with a boy in his room.

Bishop Reilly has said Rev. Buongirno was not reassigned to a parish until after he left the Norwich Diocese for Worcester.

Norwich Superior Court Judge Ian McLachlan ruled that Norwich Bishop Daniel A. Hart was not reckless because he was serving as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Boston when the sexual abuse allegedly occurred. Judge McLachlan ruled the rest of the lawsuit would be decided by a jury at a trial that could begin early next year. His decision was the result of a motion for summary judgment that Bishop Hart and the diocese filed in August 2000.
The suit claims the Norwich Diocese should have known about the sexual relationship, ignored evidence that it was going on and knowingly allowed the sexual molestation to continue.

Judge McLachlan wrote, “The incidents involving Buongirno could be found by a jury to be sufficient to raise a suspicion that Buongirno was a pedophile ... who posed a threat to children in the diocese. Whether the Diocesan Corporation failed to take sufficient steps to prevent further harm to the plaintiff is a question of fact.”

Rev. Buongirno was barred from all priestly duties in 1998, during Bishop Hart's tenure, after the diocese learned that the priest allegedly had continued to sexually molest Mr. Doe and had taken him on a cross-country trip to South Dakota. Rev. Buongirno has testified that he never had sexual contact with Mr. Doe.

According to court records, Rev. Buongirno befriended Mr. Doe while he served as a parish priest at St. Mary's in Portland, Maine, where Mr. Doe was an altar boy. Rev. Buongirno became close friends with the boy's family. Later, when Rev. Buongirno was transferred to St. Matthias, Mr. Doe began spending weekends alone with Rev. Buongirno and sleeping with the priest in a bed in the church rectory, court records show.

In 1991, Connecticut's then-Department of Children and Youth Services received an anonymous phone call about the priest's relationship with the boy, according to Mr. Reardon. The agency's investigation concluded that Rev. Buongirno had not molested Mr. Doe. Still, the boy's mother prohibited him from seeing the priest.

Joseph T. Sweeney, representing the Norwich Diocese, said Bishop Reilly received a psychological evaluation of Rev. Buongirno that gave him a clean bill of health with regard to sexual issues.

“He had nearly 10 years of very good service under Bishop Reilly before a very peculiar complaint came in,” Mr. Sweeney said. He said the boy denied any sexual involvement with Rev. Buongirno as part of the state's investigation.

“Bishop Reilly, I think, acted as a diligent and conscientious bishop with this thing,” he said. Bishop Reilly left for his Worcester assignment in December 1994.

Upon his release from the Institute of Living, Rev. Buongirno was transferred to St. John's parish in Cromwell, Conn. The Rev. Daniel McGrath, the parish priest at St. John's at the time, never was told why Rev. Buongirno was treated at the institute and did not report an incident when Rev. Buongirno allegedly had a young man in his private room in the church rectory, according to the lawsuit.

Rev. Buongirno later was transferred to St. Francis parish in Middletown, Conn., where he allegedly began molesting Mr. Doe again.
As chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Providence and then for 27 years as bishop of the Norwich, Conn., and Worcester dioceses, Bishop Reilly has been named in more than 30 lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct by priests under his charge.

A frequent theme in the suits is that the response to suspicions and sometimes formal complaints about the priests was to reassign them to other parishes. None of the suits suggests the bishop was personally involved in any sexual misconduct.


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