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  A Different Approach in Sexual Misconduct Cases
The Catholic Church in Hartford Has Quietly Paid Nearly $2.5 Million to Resolve Charges Involving Four Priests

By Lynne Tuohy
Hartford Courant [Connecticut]
March 9, 2002

The Archdiocese of Hartford has been the target of a dozen civil lawsuits since 1990 alleging sexual misconduct by priests, and it has paid nearly $2.5 million in settlements in those suits, the principal lawyer for the archdiocese said this week.

Of the four priests named in the various suits, one left the priesthood and three remain but are not assigned to parishes and do not minister in any capacity, said Jack Sitarz of Cooney, Scully and Dowling, who has defended the archdiocese in all the cases.

Sitarz said that less than $1 million in settlement money came from church coffers; insurance companies paid the balance. In addition, two claims against the archdiocese were settled before lawsuits were filed, for amounts totaling $30,000, Sitarz said. The lawsuits and claims involve misconduct dating to the 1970s; the most recent alleged misconduct occurred in 1987.

Those figures stand in sharp contrast to the Boston Archdiocese, where Cardinal Bernard Law is about to authorize settlements in excess of $20 million to 86 alleged victims of former priest John Geoghan alone. Depositions and church documents revealed that church officials transferred Geoghan from parish to parish, even though they knew he was molesting children and received psychiatric treatment for pedophilia. Geoghan was sentenced last month to nine to 10 years in prison for molesting one boy, and he faces additional criminal charges involving other young parishioners.

Law has been publicly contrite, has turned over to prosecutors confidential church files on past allegations of sexual misconduct against 80 priests and has urged parishioners to report any past abuse to church and public officials. Bishops in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine — which fall under the spiritual leadership of the Boston diocese — have followed his lead. Two priests in Maine were ordered to reveal past incidents of sexual misconduct to their parishioners.

In contrast to Law's actions since the Geoghan scandal rattled the Catholic Church nationwide, Hartford Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin, the other ranking prelate in New England, had remained silent until Friday on the issue of sexual misconduct by priests.

Cronin, who administers the Archdiocese of Hartford and is the spiritual leader of the dioceses of Norwich, Bridgeport and Providence, declined The Courant's request to be interviewed on the subject of sexual misconduct by priests, but he wrote a statement that the archdiocese made public Friday. In it, Cronin asserts that policies are in place to deter — and investigate when necessary — any allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

"Immoral activity of this nature is reprehensible and in no way tolerated or condoned," Cronin said.

Sitarz said he believes that it is neither necessary nor appropriate for Cronin to ask victims who may not have reported past incidents of misconduct to come forward.

"It's almost as if you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Sitarz said. "If we were faced with a scandal here in Hartford similar to what existed in Boston, or used to be in Bridgeport with that one priest [Raymond Pcolka], he might consider doing that. But that isn't the case here."

"He has a lot to weigh and balance," Sitarz said of Cronin. "He'd have to balance putting out an invitation to people he has no specific reason to believe are out there, while at the same time creating the illusion in the eyes of parishioners that there are a great number of these people out there, and priests transgressing out there."

Since 1990 in the Archdiocese of Hartford — which encompasses the counties of Hartford, Litchfield and New Haven, and includes 218 parishes and about 745,000 parishioners — nine priests have been placed on administrative leave after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. That was the year in which Connecticut dioceses drafted written policies regarding the investigation of sexual abuse and misconduct claims.

In all nine cases, the allegations were substantiated, although no claims or lawsuits were filed against four of the priests, Sitarz said. "These people were not put back into service, so to speak," he said.

Although the civil lawsuit settlements are sealed and confidentiality agreements bar the individuals involved from disclosing the terms of the settlements, cases against two of the four priests were publicized when they were filed. Most involve incidents that occurred in the 1970s.

• Former priest Peter J. Zizka, whose last assignment was pastor of St. Bartholomew's Church in Manchester, was named as the principal defendant in five of the lawsuits. He was placed on administrative leave in 1999, six years after the first allegations against him surfaced. Two women alleged that Zizka seduced them when they were 13 and 16, respectively, while he was assigned to the Church of the Holy Spirit in Newington in the late 1970s.

Attorney Van A. Starkweather, who represented two of the women who sued Zizka, would not discuss the settlement terms but portrayed the handling of Zizka's case early on as typical of the church's past practice of transferring priests to another parish after allegations of misconduct were made.

"It was after the third victim brought the allegations to light back in the '70s that the transfers began," Starkweather said. Zizka was transferred to churches in Glastonbury and South Windsor before arriving at St. Bartholomew's.

"Father Zizka was transferred repeatedly throughout his tenure as a priest," Starkweather said. "Suffice to say he's no longer a pastor [at St. Bartholomew's] or anywhere else."

• In civil lawsuits filed in 1993, the Rev. Ivan Ferguson was alleged to have sexually abused three male students at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford in the 1970s, when he was a teacher and chaplain at the school. One suit was withdrawn; the other two were settled. Ferguson now resides at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield but has no ministerial or teaching duties, Sitarz said.

• The four lawsuits that were settled involving two other priests in the Hartford Archdiocese were not publicized, and the priests' names remain a secret. Sitarz said that he could not identify them but emphasized that they have no ministerial duties.

Another Hartford Archdiocese priest, but not the diocese itself, was targeted in a lawsuit filed against the Rev. Felix Maguire, former pastor of St. Therese's Church in North Haven. In that case, the plaintiff claimed that Maguire sexually assaulted him in the late 1980s. The alleged victim was 15 at the time. Maguire is now a retired priest and lives in Florida. Sitarz said that the Maguire case is not included in the dozen against the archdiocese that were settled, but that Maguire is among the nine priests placed on administrative leave.

There is one civil lawsuit pending against the Hartford Archdiocese, brought by Kevin Dumais of New Britain against the Rev. Kenneth H. Shiner. Dumais claims that Shiner sexually abused him on numerous occasions between 1980 and 1984, when Shiner was pastor of St. Francis of Assisi church in New Britain.

Connecticut has one of the most expansive statutes of limitations in the country, permitting victims of alleged sexual abuse as children to file civil suits up to age 35. The statute of limitations for bringing criminal charges remains five years after the date the incident occurred, but lawmakers are scheduled to debate a bill Monday that would expand the criminal statute of limitations in cases of sexual assaults on children.

Connecticut prosecutors, after meeting on the issue in late February, decided not to ask church leaders for their files detailing any allegations of sexual misconduct by priests, and Sitarz said the church has no plans to surrender them. He noted that Cardinal Law's actions in Boston are in response to the "large-scope scandal" surrounding the Geoghan case.

"If there were to be a circumstance demonstrated where that would be helpful as opposed to harmful to all parties involved in the situation, that would be in the mix of consideration," Sitarz said.

Starkweather said that he would like to see a wholesale turning over of church files to prosecutors here.

"One would find it very interesting if the dioceses of Hartford, Bridgeport and Norwich were doing the same thing the cardinal is doing in Boston," Starkweather said. "I think there'd be quite a list."

The most widespread allegations of sexual misconduct known to date in Connecticut occurred in the Bridgeport diocese, which last year settled lawsuits filed in 1993 by 26 victims against five priests, including Raymond Pcolka. Seventeen of the victims — both men and women — alleged they were sexually abused by Pcolka, although plaintiffs' lawyer Cindy Robinson of Tremont & Sheldon said she knows of at least 25 victims of Pcolka.

"Some we couldn't bring a claim for because they were beyond the statute of limitations; others were just not emotionally up to it," Robinson said. "Pcolka abused both little boys and little girls, as young as 7 and right up into puberty."

The terms and amount of the Bridgeport settlement have not been disclosed, due to a confidentiality agreement. Other priests named in the suit were W. Phillip Coleman, Joseph Gorecki, Charles Carr and Martin Federici. The settlement included a sixth priest, Joseph Malloy, who was named in a claim but not in a lawsuit.

Settlement talks began in the Bridgeport lawsuits after it was announced that Bridgeport Bishop Edward M. Egan was going to be elevated to archbishop and cardinal of New York. Lawyers for the plaintiffs already had obtained a court order that Egan answer numerous questions that had been put to him in advance of a deposition, and both his deposition and testimony were imminent.

The timing of that settlement wasn't a coincidence, Robinson said. "I think the motivating factor [for the church] in dealing with these cases is avoiding publicity and scandal."

 
 

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