Trial Starts in Priest Sex Abuse Lawsuit against Archdiocese
By Edmund H. Mahony
January 24, 2012
The first trial of a sexual abuse complaint against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford opened in Superior Court Tuesday amid allegations that high church officials, including a former archbishop, shifted an offending priest between parishes after learning of complaints that he had abused boys.
Evidence presented to the jury Tuesday also indicated that archdiocese administrators, including the late Archbishop John Francis Whealon, moved the priest, Ivan Ferguson, between church schools where he had access to children.
Whealon died in 1991, and Ferguson died in 2002.
The suit contends that Ferguson was a pedophile who molested and sexually assaulted boys in the 1970s and 1980s. The archdiocese, which employed Ferguson, knew of the abuse but failed to stop it, the suit contends.
The suit was brought by an anonymous victim identified in legal papers as Jacob Doe. The victim, now a 43-year-old divorced father and business executive, was a student at a Catholic grammar school in Derby to which Ferguson was assigned in the early 1980s.
When he was called as the first witness late in the day, Doe told his lawyer, Thomas M. McNamara of New Haven, that Ferguson began molesting him and his best friend after befriending the boys at school and repeatedly inviting them to spend the night with him in his sleeping quarters in the church rectory.
The boys were between 13 and 15 years old when they were abused, Doe said. At about the time the abuse began, Doe said his best friend's father had recently died of a heart attack and the boy's mother was dying of terminal cancer.
Doe said Ferguson had taken his best friend "under his wing, and that's how I met him."
The lawsuit and evidence presented to the two men and four women of the jury Tuesday assert that the archdiocese assigned Ferguson to the school in Derby in spite of a complaint from a mother in Simsbury that Ferguson had previously abused her two sons while assigned to St. Bernard's Church in Simsbury's Tarriffville section.
At least three or four priests, including Whealon, knew or should have known of abuse complaints against Ferguson before he was assigned to Derby, the suit contends.
There have been dozens of suits involving sexual abuse by priests of the Hartford archdiocese, but all have ended in confidential settlements. The archdiocese has denied the allegations and, by settling, avoided trials and a resulting public examination of how church officials reacted to the allegations.
The negligence suit against the Hartford Roman Catholic Diocesan Corporation claims that the victim's abuse was the result of the church's failure to take steps that would have kept Ferguson away from children.
In his opening statement, McNamara told jurors that, over the course of the trial, they would hear some of the most "vile, revolting and damaging acts that can be done to a young person." He also told the jury that Whealon "chose to put a child abuser in contact with the objects of his sexual desire."
During some of the abuse, McNamara said, an adult, homosexual friend of Ferguson was present.
In his opening statement, diocese attorney John Sitarz suggested that the victim was involved in homosexual behavior and "looked forward" to it.
Sitarz also argued that Whealon promptly pulled Ferguson from his duties as a priest after learning the Simsbury mother had complained that he abused her sons. Sitarz said Ferguson was sent to a clinic for problem priests in Massachusetts and was not reassigned until the clinic's director pronounced him "fit" for priestly work.
It was not clear from the limited evidence introduced Tuesday whether Ferguson was institutionalized for alcoholism, child abuse or both.
There was evidence presented in court late Tuesday that Ferguson was assigned at times to three different schools: Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, an all-girls school operated by the archdiocese in Milford and the grammar school the victim attended in Derby. Ferguson's stay at the clinic fell in between his school assignments, according to the evidence.