Pastor Accused of Sexual Abuse Removed As Church Leader
Parish Support High As Lawsuits Advance
By Mark Spencer
Hartford Courant [Connecticut]
March 17, 1999
Manchester — A priest accused of sexually assaulting young girls in the 1970s while at a Newington church has been removed as pastor of a Manchester church, despite the strong support of his parishioners.
The Rev. Peter J. Zizka, pastor at St. Bartholomew's Church in Manchester since 1990, was given a leave of absence by Hartford Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin and will have no other assigned duties, diocese spokesman Monsignor Charles Johnson said Tuesday.
Two civil lawsuits were filed in Hartford Superior Court in 1995 against Zizka, 50, alleging that he had ongoing sexual relations with two girls. The girls were 13 and 16 at the time and had gone to him for counseling when he was a priest at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Newington in the late-1970s. A third woman filed suit in New Haven in 1997.
Cronin informed Zizka of his removal, effective Monday, at a meeting early last week. When told of the decision, the St. Bartholomew board of directors met and decided to support Zizka, as they have since they learned of the allegations in late 1993, board spokesman Joseph T. Sweeney said Tuesday.
"Even if we assume truth to the allegations, we as a parish family are forgiving," said Sweeney, who is also the parish attorney.
But the lawyer for Paula Linda Reed, who alleges Zizka abused her when she was a young parishioner in Newington, said Reed thought Zizka's removal was long overdue.
"My client is not unhappy at this development," attorney Van Allen Starkweather said.
Reed, 37, of Lebanon, has said she filed the suit because she wanted to prevent other children from being abused.
John H. Grasso, Zizka's lawyer, said the priest was staying with friends and could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In a letter to parishioners distributed Sunday, Zizka likened his removal to a parent's losing a son or daughter.
"I have lost my beloved child," he said.
The Hartford Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp. and the Church of the Holy Spirit are named with Zizka as defendents in the suits. In court documents filed in April 1998, Zizka denied the allegations.
Sweeney said he first became aware of the allegations in late 1993 after Zizka was temporarily removed from St. Bartholomew's by the archdiocese for 90 days to undergo psychological evaluations at the Institute of Living in Hartford. Sweeney said the evaluation was required by archdiocese policy when sexual misconduct allegations are made and that Zizka "passed muster."
Sweeney said he viewed the allegations as part of Zizka's prior life which has no bearing on the Manchester church.
"We are very disappointed that he is soon to take leave from us," reads a letter signed by 16 lay leaders and staff that was sent to Cronin last week. "We want to offer to do whatever may be possible to keep him active in the priestly ministry."
The lawsuits were sealed until last year. Starkweather said he was not surprised by Zizka's removal. He said the move probably was made because several weeks ago the Hartford cases were scheduled to begin in February and March 2000.
Both Reed and Michelle Reynolds, who now lives in Michigan, said in court documents that Zizka began to kiss and fondle them during counseling sessions, and eventually had sexual intercourse with them.
Reed, who was 13 at the time the alleged sexual assaults began, said the activity occurred about once a week from 1975 to 1979. Reynolds, who was 16, said the activity occurred from one to three times a week, beginning in 1977, and continued for about four years after Zizka was transferred in 1979 to St. Paul's Catholic Church in Glastonbury.
The woman who filed the third suit against Zizka is listed only as "Jane Doe."
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