Priest Abuse Trial: Judge Blocks Testimony from Church's Expert Witness
By Edmund H. Mahony
The Hartford Courant
February 2, 2012
A judge on Thursday said the Catholic Church cannot defend itself from a priest sex abuse case by arguing that its response to the abuse — considered by many to be inappropriate now — was generally accepted when the abuse occurred 30 years ago.
It was the second time in less than a year that a state judge presiding over a negligence claim arising from decades-old allegations of child sexual abuse has blocked a defendant from presenting historical evidence about changing societal attitudes toward child sex abuse.
Last year, another judge in Waterbury ruled that St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center could not present such expert testimony in a case involving abuse that began in the 1960s by former hospital endocrinologist Dr. George Reardon.
The essence of the historical evidence proposed by defendants in both cases is that society now has far greater knowledge of the prevalence and insidious nature of child sexual abuse. Both expert witnesses also were prepared to testify that society was less aware in the 1960s, '70s and '80s of the lasting effect of abuse on young victims and of the rate of recidivism among perpetrators.
Both institutions wanted to use historic evidence to persuade juries that their failure to detect abuse or respond to it forcefully was a reflection of a more trusting society in which few had any exposure to abuse issues.
Superior Court Judge Kevin G. Dubay ruled Thursday against the Archdiocese of Hartford, which is defending itself from a suit by a former altar boy who claims he was repeatedly molested and sexually assaulted by Father Ivan Ferguson in Derby between 1981 and '83.
In his ruling from the bench, Dubay said the historical evidence the archdiocese wished to offer was an opinion on "the reasonableness of the church response" to abuse by Ferguson. Dubay said whether or not the archdiocese acted reasonably is a question for the jury to decide.
The suit claims that senior church officers, including former Archbishop John F. Whealon, knew that Ferguson had abused two brothers in the Tarriffville section of Simsbury two years earlier, in 1979, but failed to prevent the priest from having further contact with children.
Church records entered as evidence in the case show that Ferguson was a teacher at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford when he confessed to abusing the Tarriffville brothers. Whealon removed Ferguson from the high school and sent him, for three months, to a church clinic that noted Ferguson's pedophilia but existed principally to treat alcoholic nuns and priests.
The records show that Whealon and the clinicians who treated Ferguson at the St. Luke Institute in Holliston, Mass., in 1979 believed his pedophilia could be controlled it he attended Alcoholics Anonymous and controlled his drinking.
Upon Ferguson's release from St. Luke, Whealon assigned the priest to a Catholic high school for girls in Milford. Not long after his assignment in Milford, the records show that Ferguson was pressing to be assigned to a school for boys.
The assignment to a boy's school "did not materialize," according to the records. But by 1981, he had been assigned as the principal of a Catholic grammar school in Derby for boys and girls. It was while Ferguson was at St. Mary's School in Derby that he is accused of molesting the altar boy, known in his suit as Jacob Doe, and the altar boy's best friend. The boys were age 13 to 15 when the abuse took place.
The records show that by 1982, Ferguson and the people who treated him at St. Luke were proposing that Whealon assign him to a "teen ministry." The records do not reflect how Whealon received the proposal.
Ferguson died in 2002.
Dubay's ruling prevented the archdiocese from calling former Penn State University history professor John P. Jenkins as a witness.
Jenkins is a widely published historian with specialities in the Catholic church and aberrant behavior. In the 1990s, Jenkins wrote, among other things, "Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America" and "Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis."
Jenkins' proposed testimony had been a subject of a dispute between the parties in the case for months. He was questioned at length Thursday outside the presence of the jury about the testimony, before Dubay issued his ruling.
As a measure of general societal ignorance regarding child sexual abuse until relatively recently, Jenkins said the first English language book on pedophilia was not published until 1964.
He said he had been prepared to testify that the church's response to the first abuse allegations against Ferguson was consistent with broader societal attitudes. As recently as the late 1970s, he said, the abuse of young teens by authority figures was considered homosexuality. He said society often associated such abuse with problem drinking and that so-called experts believed it could be controlled.
Evidence has been presented in the case that Ferguson, when confronted for the first time with abuse allegations, blamed his behavior on out-of-control drinking. Whealon, in a memo, characterized Ferguson as a homosexual.
In addition, Jenkins said he would have testified that so-called experts believed in the 1970s and '80s that the effects of sexual abuse on post-pubescent teens such as Doe were not serious or long-lasting. Whealon and the archdiocese, while treating Ferguson, ignored the boys in Tarriffville and instructed their mother to tell no one about the abuse.