Jury Awards $ 750,000 in Priest Misconduct Case

By Denise Lavoie
Associated Press [New Haven Conn]
August 27, 1997

A federal jury found that a Catholic diocese breached the special relationship it had with parishioners when it covered up sexual abuse by one of its priests.

The civil jury on Tuesday awarded $ 750,000 to Frank Martinelli, who claims a priest molested him in the 1960s, starting when he was 15. The jury said the Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocese breached its duty to Martinelli when it hid complaints about the Rev. Laurence Brett and failed to investigate.

"Justice has been delivered. We knew that there had been a cover-up. This was never a case just about me," Martinelli said.

The award was for compensatory damages. The jury also found Martinelli was entitled to punitive damages, which are limited to legal fees and associated costs. No date was set to award punitive damages.

Diocesan officials said they were disappointed but still hopeful the judge would set aside the jury verdict.

The diocese did not dispute Martinelli's claim that he was molested by Brett. But diocesan officials said they did not know about the abuse until Martinelli filed his lawsuit in 1993 and argued that the diocese could not be held responsible for the priest's actions.

"There is a substantial difference between Father Brett and the diocese. They are worlds apart," said diocesan spokesman Tom Drohan.

Martinelli, 50, claims he was sexually abused by Brett three times at St. Cecilia's Church in Stamford in the early 1960s when he was 15 and 16.

Martinelli told the jury that Brett once coerced him into performing oral sex on him by saying it was another way of receiving Holy Communion. Martinelli had alleged that the diocese knew of similar complaints of abuse against Brett as early as 1962.

During the trial, diocese officials were asked about a 1964 memo in which they made up a medical excuse to explain Brett's absence when he was sent to New Mexico after admitting having a sexual encounter with a 19-year-old Sacred Heart University student.

Brett, now 60, worked for two parishes in New Mexico, moved to Sacramento, Calif., then went to Baltimore in the late 1960s, where he taught for several years at a private high school. The diocese said it lost contact with him in 1993.

The trial began just two weeks after a Dallas jury found the diocese there grossly negligent in preventing the abuse of 11 children, including one who committed suicide, and awarded $ 119.6 million to victims.


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