Bridgeport Diocese pays out $3.55 million in abuse settlements
By Daniel Tepfer
March 20, 2019
|The Catholic Center in Bridgeport, the headquarters of the Diocese of Bridgeport.|
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport has agreed to pay $3.55 million to five men who claim in lawsuits they were sexually abused as children by priests.
The claimed abuse occurred from the late 1980s to the early 2000s by three priests, the Rev. Walter Coleman, the Rev. Robert Morrissey and the Rev. Larry Jensen, in Bridgeport, Brookfield, Danbury and Ridgefield.
The settlements were reached following mediation with the law firm, Tremont, Sheldon, Robinson and Mahoney, of Bridgeport, which represented the five plaintiffs.
“As a result of countless hours of effort and hard work over the past 25 years, our law firm has been able to develop a collection of materials and information which we use to get our clients compensation for the abuse they have suffered,” said attorney Douglas Mahoney. “While the money can never take away their pain, we hope that the resolution will allow them to take a small step forward with their healing.”
The settlements come as Pope Francis is being lauded for directing the church to finally take responsibility and make amends for decades of abuse by priests, amid reports if misconduct from around the country and the world.
“I admire the bravery and tenacity of the survivors. They came forward with the truth and persevered through what had to be a very stressful trial process,” said Gail Howard, Connecticut co-leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “The priests who abused them wounded innocent children. These men are lucky that the statute of limitations for prosecution of sex crimes is short. I hope that changes soon.”
Bringing cases to light
Bridgeport Bishop Frank J. Caggiano has gone to the forefront of a movement by the church to become more transparent, revealing in a report last October that the diocese has paid $52.5 million to settle 156 allegations of sexual abuse by priests since 1953. Caggiano also appointed a retired judge to look into claims that the diocese covered up priests’ sexual abuse of children for decades.
“Institutions, such as the diocese, must understand that the only ways to combat and prevent the horrors of child abuse is through transparency, vigilance and accountability,” attorney Cindy Robinson said. “This is a fight that we will continue to wage on behalf of all survivors.”
“It is our hope that these settlements bring a measure of healing and justice to victims, although we are fully aware that they can never be fully compensated for their suffering and loss,” said Brian Wallace, director of communications for the diocese. “The diocese also continues to promote healing and reconciliation by working with victims/survivors through its survivors’ group, victims assistance coordinators, Mass of Hope and Healing, and other resources.”
Wallace said that between December and February, the diocese participated in mediation to resolve the lawsuits together with a co-defendant in one case (the Maronite Order) and its insurer for four of the cases.
“The diocese resolved these cases through this mediation process and was able to cover the vast majority of the exposure through insurance proceeds,” Wallace said.
The Bridgeport law firm has represented a majority of the people involved in the settlements.
Connecticut has a five-year statute of limitations on criminal charges, but in 2002 extended the limit on filing lawsuits until the alleged victims reach the age of 48. Legislatures in New York and Pennsylvania are debating similar laws but are facing stiff opposition from the church.
Decades of claims
The diocese lists 26 priests on its website who have credibly been accused of sexual abuse in the diocese. Since the 1960s, according to the diocese’s own records turned over to the courts, abuse allegations against priests were hidden and the priests accused were moved from parish to parish. Bishop Walter Curtis hid priest abuse in the 1970s and his predecessor, Bishop Edward Egan, who later became New York’s cardinal, continued the practice into the early 1990s, the records show.
Since 1993, the Tremont law firm has represented dozens of abuse victims in lawsuits against the diocese, resulting in more than $35 million in settlements.
“The coverups have caused harm to so many children who loved their church and revered their parish priest,” said Jason Tremont, urging the diocese to release all documents regarding sexual abuse by its priests for “real transparency to occur and allow victims to heal.”
Coleman, who died in October 2016, served in 12 parishes in the diocese since 1960, according to diocese records. Diocese officials first began getting complaints about him abusing children in the 1970s.
Court records show that Monsignor Laurence Bronkiewicz, the assistant to then-Bishop Egan, was informed in 1994 about accusations that Coleman had abused children. Coleman was allowed to retire in 1995 after the first lawsuit was filed against him. But after he retired, Hearst Connecticut Media discovered Coleman was serving as a priest in the Archdiocese of Miami.
His authorization to practice as a priest was removed by Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori in 2002.
Denial and admission
Two of the men in the new lawsuits were altar boys at St. Patrick’s Church, now known as The Cathedral Parish in Bridgeport, and students at St. Patrick’s School when they were allegedly abused in the 1970s and 1980s by Coleman, who was pastor of the parish. The third man claims he was sexually abused by Coleman at St. Joseph’s Parish in Brookfield in the 1980s, when Coleman was reassigned there as pastor.
The fourth plaintiff was allegedly sexually abused by Morrissey at St. Mary’s Parish in Ridgefield in the 1990s.
In 2001, Morrissey angrily denounced accusations of abuse against priests as a witch hunt from the pulpit of St. Mary’s. He resigned a year later after two men filed suit claiming Morrissey abused them at parishes in Stamford and Greenwich in the 1970s and 1980s. Removed from ministry in 2004, Morrissey died in December 2014.
The fifth alleged victim first met Jensen in the early 2000s at an Emmaus retreat. Emmaus is a youth ministry operated by the diocese for decades, and thousands of children throughout Fairfield County have attended its overnight retreats.
Jensen, the spiritual director of the diocese’s Danbury program, is accused of abusing the plaintiff at St. Anthony Maronite Catholic Church where the program was held.
“Emmaus is supposed to be a retreat where the youth focus on their faith and relationship with God; instead we have seen predator priests use religion as a means to groom and ultimately abuse them,” Jason Tremont said.
Jensen served eight years at the Danbury church before being transferred to St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church in Waterville, Maine. He was removed from the priesthood in 2017, after the Tremont firm reported the claim and the Eparchy of St. Maronite of Brooklyn, N.Y., determined it was “substantiated.”
“Our role in the case was not central and I am grateful the case was given the respect it was due,” said Jensen’s lawyer, Philip Russell, said.
Jensen said in the 2006 interview that he tried to get youth more involved in church, starting a youth play for Christmas and a Passion play for teenagers and young adults.
“Children need to feel at home at their church,” Jensen said at the time. “It is supposed to be a family feeling when they are here.”