Norwich Diocese Seeks Delay in Priest Sex-abuse Trial Because of Penn State Scandal
By Dave Altimari
The Hartford Courant
August 7, 2012
The Norwich diocese is arguing that a civil trial involving charges that one of its priests sexually abused a 12-year-old girl should be postponed because of publicity surrounding the Penn State sex abuse scandal.
Attorneys for the church requested the delay to at least October, arguing that publicity surrounding the Penn State case "creates an adverse and hostile public sentiment" that would make it hard for the diocese to get a fair trial. The civil trial is scheduled to start in Hartford Superior Court this week. The judge has not ruled on the request for a delay.
The case involves now-deceased priest Thomas W. Shea. It was filed by a woman who claims Shea abused her more than 35 years ago.
In his motion, attorney Kevin G. Smith of Milano & Wanat argued that in nearly all of the articles written about the Penn State case "the media equates the Pennn State situation to sexual abuse allegations against the Catholic Church."
Penn State was fined $60 million by the NCAA for failing to stop the sexual abuse of children by former football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted earlier this year of molesting more than 40 boys, some of them in the school's football facilities.
Smith's motion focuses more on what effect the $60 million figure could have on jurors in Hartford rather than the abuse claims against Sandusky.
"In many cases, it is likely that individual members of the jury pool will simply understand the underlying numeric value attributed to the fine; not the process in which the NCAA came up with that figure," Smith wrote.
"(The Penn State fine) is not based upon principles of our legal system and lacks any correlation to just damages in the present case. Furthermore the $60 million fine desensitizes individual members of the jury pool and will likely confuse the jury assigning damages to the plaintiff," Smith wrote.
Smith and Gary C. Kaisen, also of Milano & Wanat, had a closed door meeting Tuesday in Judge Marshall Berger's chambers with the judge and New London attorney Robert Reardon, who is representing the plaintiff, who is not identified.
Jury selection was scheduled to start Tuesday but was postponed while Berger reviewed many last minute motions filed by the diocese attorneys. The sides are scheduled to report back to Berger's court Wednesday morning.
In her lawsuit, filed in 2008, Jane Doe alleges that Shea made her perform oral sex on him while he was pastor of St. Joseph's Church in New London in 1976.
The lawsuit claims that church officials were aware that Shea had previously abused children when they assigned him to St. Joseph's and that he had molested as many as 15 girls while being transferred to 11 different parishes in the diocese.
Shea had been on sick leave from 1973 to 1975 before he was placed at St. Joseph's, records show. The priest, who died in a West Hartford nursing home in 2006, 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.
The four-year-old lawsuit has been contentious, with each side filing several motions seeking sanctions against the other for failing to turn over potential evidence or for allegedly inappropriate behavior during depositions.
In their motion for continuance, the diocese attorneys also cite the fact that Reardon recently adding 23 names to the witness list and allege that he provided a lack of documentation regarding Jane Doe's potential economic damages. They also claim he failed to disclose a possible expert witness.
In court documents, Reardon dismissed the motion as an attempt to delay the trial "with frivolous pleadings."
Reardon said the claim that the Penn State scandal would be prejudicial to the diocese is without merit.
"It cannot be denied that there is negative public sentiment about the sexual molestation of children by those in authority. If the plaintiff was to be forced to wait for trial until there is no such negative public sentiment, she would be waiting a lifetime,'' Reardon wrote.
The trial also is expected to shed light on a request by the diocese made to now-Pope Benedict to have Shea laicized. At the time, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was in charge of the Vatican office responsible for determining if a canonical trial should be held to remove someone from the priesthood.
Bishop Michael Cote wrote to Ratzinger in April 2005 seeking to have Shea laicized.
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 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 wrote.
The Vatican denied Cote's request about a month later in a letter that stated since "it involves incidents which, while serious in nature, occurred over 35 years ago" Cote should proceed with discipline that included Shea being forbidden from wearing a collar or performing priestly duties.
Ratzinger was named Pope Benedict XVI only days after receiving Cote's letter and it is unclear if he had any involvement in the Vatican's response.