Court: Priest's Alleged Victim Can Sue Connecticut Diocese
By Nancy Plevin
Santa Fe New Mexican [New Mexico]
February 18, 1999
After shipping a pedophile priest off to New Mexico, where he allegedly molested boys at St. Anne's Parish in Santa Fe and the Boys School at Springer in the 1960s and '70s, a Connecticut diocese can be sued here by one of his alleged victims, the New Mexico Court of Appeals has ruled.
In overturning for the second time a 1997 state district court ruling dismissing the lawsuit, the appeals court said the alleged abuse of Navor Tercero by the Rev. Bernard Bissonnette "occurred in New Mexico, and this state has a legitimate concern for protection of its children from sexual molestation."
The court said Bissonnette's placement in New Mexico "served to discipline an errant priest, and to avoid the harmful publicity to the diocese and to protect Connecticut parishioners from further abuse. ... Indeed, the very reason for his placement in New Mexico was his pedophilia."
Tercero's attorney, Cynthia Fry of Albuquerque, said the ruling "sends a message (that) you can't knowingly dump your wayward priests in another state and expect not to be hauled into court in those states."
The ruling effectively reinstates the lawsuit for unspecified damages by Tercero against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, Conn. Tercero alleges that he was molested when he was a child by Bissonnette while the priest was assigned to St. Anne's Parish between 1966 and 1968.
The appeals court filed its decision Feb. 9, after the Norwich diocese asked it to reconsider a December ruling, also in favor of Tercero.
The diocese's Albuquerque attorney, Lisa Ford, would only say that her client planned to appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court. But according to the appeals court ruling, the Connecticut diocese contends that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which covers most of Northern New Mexico, and Bissonnette himself were responsible for the priest's actions.
The Catholic Church nationwide has been embroiled in scandal since the late 1980s, when allegations of sexual molestation by priests and cover-ups by superiors came to light.
The 285,000-member Archdiocese of Santa Fe alone has settled more than 170 lawsuits for many millions of dollars with alleged victims of abuse dating to the 1950s.
The church is accused of sending pedophile priests to New Mexico and then loosing them upon unsuspecting parishes across the state.
Robert Sanchez, who led the archdiocese for 20 years, resigned in 1993 after acknowledging that he had sexual relations with women and that he sometimes reassigned rather than removed priests accused of molestation.
According to the New Mexico appeals court ruling, Bissonnette was ordained in Connecticut in 1958. By 1962, he had been transferred within the diocese because of conduct involving "familiarities" with boys. The next year, Bissonnette was accused of sexually molesting two boys and the church sent him to the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, N.M., a treatment center for troubled priests.
Later that year, the bishop of Norwich told the Servants that Bissonnette could not return to Connecticut "due in large part to his notoriety," but the diocese continued to support him, the ruling said.
The bishop suggested that Bissonnette either find another diocese to take him, stay at the treatment center or leave the priesthood.
Bissonnette was transferred to another facility run by the Servants in Minnesota, but by 1966 he had not found placement and was granted permission by the bishop of Norwich to return to Jemez Springs, the court said.
Shortly thereafter, Bissonnette was assigned to St. Anne's Parish in Santa Fe. In 1968, he returned to the Servants after "familiar" complaints, and the Connecticut diocese, once again, paid for his treatment, the ruling said.
Accusations against Bissonnette continued. According to news reports, Bissonnette was dismissed in 1978 as chaplain of the Boys School for allegedly sexually abusing juvenile inmates.
And members of a Connecticut family confronted Bissonnette in New Mexico in 1993 about allegations that he abused their brother, Thomas Dreary, nearly 30 years before. Dreary committed suicide in 1991.
According to the reports, Bissonnette had been assigned to 14 different New Mexico parishes, including St. Bernadette in Albuquerque, St. Eleanor in Ruidoso and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Truth of Consequences.
According to attorneys for Tercero, Bissonnette is now retired and lives at an undisclosed location in New Mexico.
In a unanimous ruling written by Judge M. Christina Armijo, the appeals court cited New Mexico's "long-arm statute," which gives state courts jurisdiction over "the transaction of any business within the state."
"The fact that the Diocese is a nonprofit religious organization does not exempt it," the court said.
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