Priest Abuse Verdict: Jury Finds Archdiocese Negligent and Reckless; $1 Million for Victim
By Edmund H. Mahony
February 10, 2012
A former altar boy who was sexually abused by a priest 30 years ago won a $1 million damage award Friday after a jury found that the Archdiocese of Hartford was reckless and negligent when it appointed the priest, who had a history of child abuse, as principal of the boy's parochial grammar school.
"This is validation that things that occurred in the past were not my fault or the fault of any of the victims," said the former altar boy, now an adult businessman and father of two. "This is the most important part of my healing process. This predator was placed in a position where he could hurt me. I'm hoping that other victims can begin their healing process and the church does the right thing going forward."
An emotional, civil jury of four women and two men delivered the verdict at midmorning Friday after barely four hours of deliberation. The finding for the victim, identified in court papers as Jacob Doe, followed what is believed to be the first public trial of a sexual abuse claim against the archdiocese.
Some jurors were still trying to compose themselves as they left the courthouse.
"We were trying so hard to do what was right by everybody, and I don't think I can talk right now," said forewoman Mary Pat Noonan. "We were working very hard together to be fair … and we are very proud of the job we did."
There have been dozens of claims involving child abuse by Connecticut priests against the Archdiocese of Hartford and the dioceses of Norwich and Bridgeport. With rare exceptions, they ended in confidential settlements in which the church conceded nothing while keeping secret what it paid to the victims, according to lawyers involved in the litigation.
The $1 million verdict, when considered with a recent $2.75 million verdict in a similar suit against St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, could strengthen the positions of scores of victims who have lawsuits pending against the church hierarchy in Hartford and Bridgeport, as well as the hospital, for sexual abuse that occurred decades ago. In many of the suits, the defendants or their insurers have balked at settling for sums substantially lower than the two damage awards.
Judges in both cases also ruled that the archdiocese and the hospital would not be able to present to jurors what both had hoped would be persuasive components of their defenses — historical arguments that what now might be considered a reckless or negligent response to pedophilia was consistent with the way that society in general viewed child sexual abuse 30 years ago.
"You can't just argue that what happened 30 years ago should be excused because attitudes are different today," said Hartford lawyer Richard Kenny, who is suing for more than 20 abuse victims of Dr. George Reardon, an endocrinologist who worked at St. Francis from 1963 until 1993 and who died in 1998. "The more that these verdicts are returned, the more difficult it is for St. Francis and the church to settle cases."
Doe claimed in his lawsuit against the archdiocese that he and a close childhood friend — another altar boy — were repeatedly molested and sexually assaulted by Father Ivan Ferguson and a gay friend of the priest. At the time of the abuse, from 1981 to 1983, the boys attended a parochial grammar school in Derby. Ferguson, who was in his early to mid-40s when he abused the boys, died in 2002.
Former Archbishop John F. Whealon appointed Ferguson priest director of the Derby school in 1981. Two years earlier, in 1979, Whealon learned that a mother complained to the church that Ferguson had sexually abused her two sons. At the time of the 1979 complaint, Ferguson was a teacher at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford.
When confronted by Whealon about the 1979 allegation, Ferguson admitted abusing the brothers at a church rectory where he lived in the Tariffville section of Simsbury. Two years later, Ferguson and his boyfriend were accused of abusing Doe and his childhood friend at, among other places, the rectory to which Ferguson had been reassigned in Derby.
Doe's lawyer, Thomas McNamara of New Haven, argued to the jury that Ferguson's abuse had stolen his client's teenage years and left him emotionally scarred for life.
"It's a great day for my client and for all victims of childhood sexual abuse," McNamara said after the verdict was returned. "The verdict sends one more message that victims no longer have to live in the darkness of the damage that childhood sexual abuse has caused them."
John Sitarz, the lawyer for the archdiocese, declined to comment.
There was testimony at the trial that Doe grew up in a quintessentially Catholic family, to parents who devoted much of their free time to volunteer church activities. Doe's father trained for years to become a church deacon, which allowed him to prepare and deliver sermons. Doe's mother volunteered as a parish nurse. In retirement, the parents devote their free time to volunteering at a soup kitchen. Doe was a straight-A student in grammar school, in addition to being an altar boy.
Doe said Friday that he believes the church treated him "viciously" after his decision in 2007 to sue. He said he no longer attends church, although his faith has not weakened.
"My family and my attorney — without them I would not be where I am in my healing process," Doe said.
McNamara presented evidence to the jury that the sexual abuse will cause Doe to suffer for life from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Collectively, witnesses for Doe said that the emotional and mental problems have left him with difficulty concentrating and forming attachments.
The archdiocese tried to rebut Doe's claim of a chronic mental disability by arguing that his abuse did not produce the level of fear needed to trigger a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress. Had the abuse been truly traumatic, an archdiocese witness argued, Doe would have run away or reported Ferguson. To make his point, the church psychiatrist testified that Doe enjoyed parts of what he called a generally positive relationship with Ferguson.
Doe's father, who accompanied his son to court daily, called the verdict "a new beginning."
"Accountability is where it should be," his father said. "Now he can start to heal. It's off his shoulders."
The archdiocese claimed at trial that it permitted Ferguson to return to work with children only after mental health experts at a church-affiliated clinic decided that Ferguson could control his sexual attraction to boys. Whealon ordered Ferguson to undergo four months of inpatient treatment at the clinic after the first abuse complaint.
Ferguson blamed his molestation of boys on alcohol abuse, and McNamara argued to the jury that the clinic was capable only of treating alcoholism.
The jury decided that the treatment was insufficient to protect children.
On a written verdict form, jurors found that the archdiocese failed in numerous obligations, including failing to supervise Ferguson; failing to remove Ferguson from any position in which he could be a danger to minors, after learning of the earlier instance of abuse; and failing to warn parishioners, including Doe's parents, about the threat that Ferguson posed to children.