|Diocese Settles in Alleged Abuse Case in Pawcatuck
Priest Was Accused of Molesting Youth at St. Michael's Church
By Joe Wojtas
October 24, 2007
The Diocese of Norwich has agreed to pay an undisclosed settlement to a Pawcatuck man who alleged that a priest formerly at St. Michael's Church in Pawcatuck sexually abused him more than 30 years ago.
According to diocesan spokes-man Michael Strammiello, the amount of the settlement and how it will be funded will be released Sunday, when St. Michael's pastor Rev. Dennis Perkins reads a letter from Bishop Michael Cote to those who attend Mass.
Strammiello said the bishop wanted to inform the parishioners about the details of the settlement before they read about it in the newspaper. The letter is also expected to contain information about the diocese's Safe Environments Program, which is designed to protect children from abuse.
James Fish, 47, had sued the diocese, the church and the Rev. Paul Hebert, who Fish said molested him in 1973 and 1974 when he was in the seventh grade.
The lawsuit and court documents state that much of the molestation took place in the church rectory when Hebert would bring Fish up to his bedroom, where he kept a trunk containing 100 to 200 pornographic magazines. They would look at the magazines, and Hebert would then sexually assault Fish and force Fish to perform sexual acts on him.
The suit had charged that the diocese had been warned that Hebert posed a threat to children but ignored those warnings and allowed the abuse of Fish to continue after it became aware of it. It also charged the diocese disregarded complaints that Hebert sexually exploited minors for many years.
The diocese and its insurance company have already paid more than $4 million to settle lawsuits filed by people who say they were sexually abused by priests who worked in the diocese. Many of those settlements occurred over the past year. Two more lawsuits are pending.
An extensive psychiatric exam of Fish revealed that he has suffered a host of serious emotional and mental-health problems, including post traumatic stress disorder along with various addictions and relationship problems because of the abuse. The doctor who performed the exam, Robin Grant Hall of Glastonbury, stated that Fish would need years of continued treatment.
"Mr. Fish comes from a family of devout Catholics such that the church was an extension of his home and when he was abused by Father Hebert, Father Hebert robbed him of his faith, his religion in general and left him struggling with intense feelings of shame," wrote Grant Hall in her report.
The report states that Fish, a former altar boy, did not tell his mother about the alleged abuse until 2003. She then told Perkins what happened after Mass one day at St. Michael's. The diocese then began its investigation and removed Hebert from the church he was assigned to in Pomfret.
Fish said in the report that he believes Hebert molested "a handful of guys in town."
Court documents also show that a parishioner told the diocese in 2004 that she and her husband witnessed "unsettling" events concerning priests and boys at St. Michael's but did not tell anyone at the time. She said she had talked to the boys since but believes they will not come forward because it would be devastating for their parents, who do not know what occurred.
Hebert was a diocesan priest from 1959 until 2004, when he was removed following Fish's complaint. He served at St. Michael's from 1971 to 1981, when he was assigned to the Most Holy Trinity Church in Pomfret. He remained there until Bishop Michael R. Cote placed him on a leave of absence when the allegations came to light. Parishioners at the Pomfret church will also receive Cote's letter on Sunday, according to Strammiello.
Hebert, who also served at parishes in Old Saybrook, Montville and Clinton, denied the allegations through the diocese in 2004.
Strammiello said Hebert is now retired and not serving in any parish, adding that does not know where he is. Hebert had been living in a South Windsor nursing home when the suit was filed in 2005, but no one with that name lives there now.
"I am not free to discuss the locations of any of the individual parties to this case," Strammiello said. "We want to respect the right of both Mr. Fish and Father Hebert to their privacy."
James Hall, Fish's Pawcatuck attorney, declined to discuss the terms of the settlement, saying he had promised his client he would not discuss it in order to protect his privacy.
The case, which has been pending since 2005, was nearing trial when the two sides agreed to the settlement on Friday. Hall did say that Fish would always be affected by what happened to him.
"Like so many victims of abuse, he'll always have the scars of the abuse," he said. "He can't ever erase them. But he's doing what he can to put his life together."
Said Strammiello: "Protracted litigation is a difficult process for everyone and truly does not benefit any of the parties. A settlement, certainly in this case, helps to bring a sense of closure. Our concern and compassion is extended to all involved."
In preparing a defense, diocesan attorneys had asked Fish very detailed questions about his life since he was 6 years old, questions that Hall and Fish's other attorney, Thomas McNamara, had said bordered on harassment.
The lawyers had asked Fish to identify every person he'd ever had a relationship with and provide details about them. The plaintiff has also been asked to name every medical provider who had treated him, along with the conditions for which he was treated, and for details about every medication he'd taken, the schools he attended, what he studied and the grades he received. Diocesan attorneys said the questions were needed to determine the extent of damages being claimed by Fish.
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