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  Lawsuit Alleges Sex Abuse by Nun

By Kim Martineau
Hartford Courant [Hartford CT]
June 24, 2003

A former student at an all-girls Catholic high school claims she was sexually assaulted more than a decade ago by a nun who taught morals and religion and was in charge of recruiting young women into the sisterhood.

Landa Mauriello-Vernon, now living in Rhode Island, says the nun, Sister Linda Cusano, repeatedly forced her into a vacant office in a secluded wing of the school, wrestled her to the floor and threw her body on top of hers, telling her to "submit herself to God," and "join me in the convent."

The allegations were contained in a lawsuit Mauriello-Vernon filed against Cusano and Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden on Friday in New Haven Superior Court. School principal Ritamary Schulz did not return repeated calls for comment and the school's lawyer, Stephen Fogerty, could not be reached.

Mauriello's parents decided to send both of their daughters to Sacred Heart so they would get a "solid education in a safe environment," said Mauriello-Vernon's lawyer, Patricia Cofrancesco. They grew alarmed when their oldest daughter, Landa, quit the volleyball team and choral group senior year, between 1991 and 1992, and started talking about abandoning her plans for college.

It was during that period of time, the suit says, that Cusano had repeated sexual contact with Landa.

Before the assaults, the student had talked about studying music therapy, to use her talent as a vocalist to help the disabled.

Instead, she announced she was entering the convent and asked her parents to sign a form giving her permission. They refused. They worried she was spending too much time with Cusano, 42, who taught religion, but also worked as a vocation director and was known privately, among students, as "the recruiter."

The Mauriellos met with school officials several times to discuss their concerns, but their complaints were brushed off, Cofrancesco said. If their suspicions had been thoroughly investigated, the abuse might have been uncovered sooner, she said. Cofrancesco said officials sent Cusano to a treatment center last fall, when the allegations came to light, but a nun who answered the phone at the convent Friday declined to confirm Cusano's whereabouts.

After graduating, Mauriello-Vernon attended college at Eastern Connecticut State University and Southern Connecticut State University. But she never finished her degree and until a year ago, she kept the abuse secret, even from her parents. She has grappled with depression and feelings of self-hatred that have caused her to systematically cut herself, the lawsuit says.

Sacred Heart is run by the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a religious order founded in Italy by Mother Clelia Merloni.

The order established a mission in New Haven in 1906 and later moved its provincial house, or American headquarters, from New Haven to Mount Sacred Heart in Hamden.

The nuns built a private girls' academy on the site at which nearly 500 students are currently enrolled. Tuition is $7,500 a year.

The Archdiocese of Hartford loosely oversees the school, but has little involvement in its day-to-day operations. A diocese spokesman, the Rev. John Gatzak, said he had no knowledge of Mauriello-Vernon's complaint.

Mauriello-Vernon is now married and living in Rhode Island. She has a 3-year-old daughter and is pregnant with a second child.

"She felt by going public she could prevent this from happening again," said Cofrancesco. "She wants those responsible for this to be held accountable. It dramatically altered the course of her life."

 
 

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