Vatican's Decision Not to Remove Connecticut Priest May Play Role in Abuse Trial
By Dave Altimari
August 4, 2012
The Vatican's refusal to let the Norwich diocese remove an accused pedophile from the priesthood is expected to play a role in the upcoming trial involving a New London woman who says the priest molested her when she was 12.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger received the Norwich request days before being elected pope in 2005. It's unclear, though, if Ratzinger himself decided against laicizing Father Thomas Shea, who was accused of molesting as many as 15 girls at 11 different parishes throughout the Diocese of Norwich in a career that started in 1953.
One of accusers, using the pseudonym Jane Doe, sued the diocese in 2008 alleging that Shea made her perform oral sex on him while he was pastor of St. Joseph's Church in New London.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin next week in Superior Court in Hartford. Shea died in a West Hartford nursing home in 2006, and he had left active ministry years before Bishop of Norwich Rev. Michael Cote made the request to strip him of his priesthood.
As a priest in good standing, Shea was being paid by the diocese a pension of about $15,000 annually and all of his health insurance costs, including his nursing home bills.
In an April 8, 2005, letter to Ratzinger, Cote wrote that the "trail of destruction caused by Thomas W. Shea is staggering." He wrote there were at least 15 credible cases of abuse by Shea of girls under the age of 18, including one girl who tried to kill herself three times before she turned 23.
"The psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage wrought by this man is immeasurable,'' Cote wrote. "The people who have been directly affected by his behavior as well as the entire People of God would welcome his involuntary dismissal from the clerical state."
Cote's letter was sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the office that decides whether accused priests should get so-called canonical trials that could eventually lead to their being defrocked.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, headed the Vatican office in charge of ordering canonical trials from 1981 to 2005. Only the Vatican can take away a priest's powers.
On May 12, 2005, less than a month after Ratzinger became pope, the Vatican responded to Cote, denying his request to remove Shea. The letter indicates that the status quo — Shea in retirement with the restrictions not to wear a collar or say Mass — was sufficient.
Norwich Diocese spokesman Michael Strammiello said Cote would not comment on his letter or the Vatican's response because of the pending litigation. Vatican officials could not be reached for comment.
"This case falls into prescription as it involves incidents which, while serious in nature, occurred over 35 years ago,'' wrote Archbishop Angelo Amato, the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Attorney Robert Reardon, representing the plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Amato was considered Ratzinger's "right hand man" at that time and would not have sent the letter without Ratzinger's approval.
Pope Benedict has come under criticism for similar actions in other cases. Last year in Wisconsin, documents surfaced showing that a bishop sent him a letter seeking to have a priest accused of molesting deaf children defrocked. But a church trial never occurred after the accused priest wrote a letter to the Pope asking him not to go forward with the trial.
"No Catholic official on the planet has more power or knowledge about clergy sex crimes than Pope Benedict. Yet he still takes virtually no steps to help and sometimes, like this case, takes steps that hurt,'' said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"The letters also sadly show that only after and because of lawsuits do bishops often try to oust predator priests," Clohessy said.
The Norwich Diocese fought to keep the letter to Ratzinger secret along with more than 600 pages of Shea's personnel file. Superior Court Judge Marshall Berger ruled against the church, and many of the documents including the letter from the Pope will become evidence at the upcoming trial, according to Reardon.
While the diocese has settled other abuse cases against Shea, they have not offered to settle this case, Reardon said. Court documents show that Reardon had asked for $1.5 million to settle.
The lawsuit claims that church officials were aware of Shea's previous behavior when they assigned him to St. Joseph's. Shea had been on sick leave from 1973 to 1975 before he was placed at St. Joseph's, records show.
Shea was ordained a priest in 1946 and served in several parishes throughout the diocese, mostly in the New London area. Shea admitted as far back as 1953 that he had kissed a girl from his parish and taken photos of her in a bathing suit, according to court records.
The lawsuit alleges that the Diocese of Norwich concealed the results of an internal investigation that determined Shea had fondled other young girls and had been sent for treatment.