|Alleged Victims Got $20,000 Payments Not to Sue Diocese for Abuse
By Dave Altimari, Edmund H. Mahony and Matthew Kauffman
The Harford Courant
December 11, 2009
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport in 2004 quietly paidtens of thousands of dollars to two men who claimed they were abused as teenagers by the second-highest ranking member of the diocese and another priest who now serves as pastor of a Greenwich parish.
In exchange for $20,000 payments, the two men agreed not to sue the diocese or the two priests — Monsignor William Genuario, who was vicar general of the Bridgeport diocese for nine yearsand remains a priest in good standing, and Monsignor Frank Wissel, pastor at St. Mary Parish in Greenwich and founder of a home for underprivileged boys in Bridgeport.
In a two-page settlement, a copy of which was obtained byThe Courant, the diocese agreed to settled the "disputed claims" in order to avoid "the inconvenience, expense and uncertainty of litigation." But Wissel on Thursday said that he was surprised to hear that the diocese paid any money for claims against him and that the allegations were "completely false."
Michael Dolan, attorney for the diocese, wrote then that the $20,000 payments were designed to cover three years of weekly counseling and therapy for the men, at $125 a session.Nine days after signing the agreement, their checks — signed by Bishop William Lori — were issued.
The allegations make Genuario, who has been accused by victims of failing to act firmly on abuse complaints against other priests, the highest-ranking member of any diocese in Connecticut to be accused of abuse. They also raise questions about Lori's handling of complaints and his assurance that all credibly accused priests were relieved of priestly duties.
Minneapolis attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who represents both victims, said Thursday they were shocked to learn that both Genuario and Wissel are still active in the ministry. He said the men were led to believe by church officials that wouldn't be the case.
"My clients are deeply concerned that both of these men are still in positions where they could possibly hurt other kids," Anderson said.
"I have been asked by both victims to review the settlement agreement because they both recently learned that Wissel is a pastor of a church and Genuario is still an officer who has stature within the diocese," he said.
Anderson said the abuse of his clients started in the late 1970s and continued into the 1980s, when both were in high school. At that time Genuario was the vicar general of the diocese and answered only to then-Bishop Walter Curtis. Anderson said both of his clients were sexually abused by Wissel and Genuario.
Wissel, 71, called the allegations "ridiculous." He said the diocese investigated the allegation and deemed it to be false.
"I didn't know about any payments. It certainly wasn't done as any admission of guilt, that's for sure," Wissel said. "Because I was willing, if I had to, to go to court over this. It was ridiculous. What that money would have been for, I don't know. Perhaps rehabilitation."
The Bridgeport diocese would not answer specific questions concerning complaints against Genuario. Instead, diocesan spokesman Joseph McAleer issued a statement saying: "Monsignor Genuario is a retired priest who assists part-time at the Marriage Tribunal. He is a priest in good standing."
"Per its policies," the statement said, "the Diocese removes from ministry any member of the clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse. The Diocese takes seriously any allegation of sexual abuse, and immediately notifies law enforcement of any accusation received. Every allegation is carefully examined by a competent lay review board. If an allegation is deemed credible, the Diocese removes the priest from ministry.
"Separate and apart from the above process, the Diocese, through its Safe Environments Office, offers assistance to all persons impacted by clergy sexual abuse and is committed to reaching out to those who have been harmed with compassion and concern."
Despite the settlement, Genuario, 78, is currently a judge in the diocesan tribunal court, which deals with such issues as marriage annulments. Earlier, Genuario was pastor for nine years at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Greenwich.
Genuario has been a high-ranking member of the diocese's administration almost since he was ordained in 1956.
From 1978-87 he served under Curtis as the vicar general, the second-highest-ranking position in the diocese, after the bishop.
In a March 4, 1997, deposition that was among more than 11,000 pages of courtdocuments released last week involving priest abuse cases settled in 2001, Genuario's testimony shows that lawyers suing the church often had difficulty eliciting unambiguous responses.
Genuario has been a key figure in many of the lawsuits against the diocese, and was the author of the now infamousmemo in which he wrote that "hepatitis was to be feigned" to explain the absence of the Rev. Laurence Brett, who admitted sexually abusing a college student in December 1964.Genuario also was grilled about whether, when he was vicar general, at least one woman came to him with a complaint that she had been sexually abused by Monsignor Gregory Smith.
While Genuario acknowledged that the woman had contacted him and that he referred her to Monsignor Andrew Cusack, he denied telling her "God had granted you the ability to forget it, and that meant that God had forgiven Father Smith and that she, as a victim, would never rest until she herself forgave Father Smith."
Smith is one of eight priests alleged to have sexually abused a parishioner who was assigned to St. Teresa's Church in Trumbull between 1965 and 2000. Seven have been identified.
Genuario lived at St. Teresa's from 1964 to 1968, according to The Official Catholic Directory. The diocese refused tosaywhether Genuario was the eighth priest assigned to St. Teresa's for which they have settled claims.
In a letter distributed last weekend at all parishes in the diocese, Lori ridiculed what he called the "lawn man liability theory" because the original claims by a man named Michael Powel were that he was abused by the man who did landscaping and other odd jobs at St. Teresa's.
Powel's estate is suing the diocese, claiming that the landscaper was an employee of the diocese. The suit also alleges that Powel was abused by the Rev. Joseph Gorecki, who is now deceased.
In the letter, Lori said that Powel turned to suing the diocese only after realizing the "lawn man" had little money. He also said that the abuse accusations against the priest are based on a "memory" claimed to have been recovered over 30 years after the alleged abuse took place.
Lori described how the diocese has changed its policies toward sexual abuse claims since he became bishop in March 2001.
"The Diocese has made public the names of offending priests, removed them from ministry, reached out to victims, and settled all of those claims," Lori wrote.
"As you know, the Diocese has also gone to the greatest lengths to create a safe environment for our children and young people — background checking more than 30,000 clergy, employees, and volunteers, and providing prevention training for more than 95,000 people," Lori said.
David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the secret settlement of the claims against such a high-ranking official as Genuario goes against Lori's claims of openness.
"This is proof that Lori is no better than [former Bridgeport Bishop Edward] Egan. For years, Lori has kept several credible child sex abuse reports against a predator priest secret, and let him be around vulnerable children and unsuspecting families," Clohessy said.
"That violates everything America's bishops have repeatedly promised, and every shred of common decency in a civilized society. For the life of me, I can't imagine how Lori sleeps at night," Clohessy said.
Wissel's name has rarely been mentioned in connection with the lawsuits, though he did testify in at least two trials, and in one advocated for disclosing wrongdoing by priests.
In addition to his pastoral duties at St. Mary's, Wissel is founding director of the St. Maximilian Kolbe House of Studies for boys in Bridgeport, which provided housing for about 10 boys and young men, many from other countries.
Wissel said it was not unusual that he would not have been notified of the settlement.
"They don't follow up with me on what they do. All they tell me is it was a false allegation, and then you're relieved, because you know darn well you didn't do anything," he said.
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