A New Britain Man Says He Was Molested by His Priest As a Child. the Priest Denies It. the Church Won't Comment. Maybe the Worst Thing about All This, However, Is Its Terrible Familiarity
By Karen Guzman
Hartford Courant [Connecticut]
March 10, 2002
Kevin Dumais left his session at Hartford Hospital that afternoon, submerged in the sticky mire of anxiety and sorrow that had bogged down his entire adult life. The psychotherapy was slow going. A few years into it, he was still struggling. Really struggling.
There seemed to be no end to the knot of conflict and confusion that was his past. There were so many manifestations of it: the drinking and binge-eating, the sleepless nights and crushing sorrow. Some days it took all the will he could muster just to get out of bed.
Crossing the bright hospital lobby, however, two things were foremost in his mind: He had to go to the bathroom and he had to get back to work. Not exactly the mindset for revelation.
Then, in the middle of the lobby, he saw the priest.
Father Shiner. Kenneth H. Shiner, walking toward him. There was no time to plan a response, no time to duck out. Their eyes had met. It had been more than a year since the two had seen each other. The mere sight of the silver-haired priest cut loose a rush of emotion and memory. Would the past never end?
The past stopped to chat.
The priest's old "cocky demeanor" was still there, the lightness, the smug, unspoken sense of entitlement. Impressive once, it irritated Kevin now. Shiner was in the hospital visiting a cardiac patient from his parish.
"We had a brief conversation. It was very superficial," Kevin says. When the chit-chat dried up, they said goodbye. "I came away from it with such a sense of he was not the person who I thought he was. He was almost like a stranger," Kevin says.
Shiner disappeared across the lobby, cutting the figure of the pious and compassionate priest. It was enough to make Kevin sick. And he had already been sick, for far too long, over the things other people did. The time was coming to seize control.
He thought Father Shiner loved him. That's the essential point to grasp. When Kevin was a 14-year-old boy and Shiner was his parish priest, the sexual encounters Kevin claims the two shared in the rectory of St. Francis of Assisi Church in New Britain didn't seem wrong.
"He took an interest in me. He listened to me," Kevin, 35, says. "I didn't think it was weird because I thought this person loved me. I thought that in the natural course of things when you care for somebody, this takes place. I never really thought of it as being inappropriate, not till years later when I saw friends of mine that have children who are 14 years old, and I say — at this age right now — I wouldn't think of sleeping with this kid. To me, that's sick right now, even though I experienced it."
On this March day in attorney Cindy Robinson's downtown Bridgeport office, Kevin's ready to talk. In blue-jean painter's pants and a red baseball cap, he is nervous yet articulate, peppering his speech with flashes of wit and humor and self-deprecating jokes. His dark blond hair and goatee are neatly trimmed. His blue eyes grow wistful when he gropes for words to describe a situation that, with time and insight, now feels unreal.
It's also a situation that Shiner says never existed. The priest is adamant in his denial that nothing sexual happened between Kevin Dumais and himself. There are no witnesses to the alleged encounters. This is a case that pits one man's word against another's, during a time of crisis in the Catholic Church.
Kevin describes the details of the civil lawsuit he's filed against Shiner, St. Francis Church, Hartford Archbishop Daniel Cronin and the Archdiocese of Hartford. The suit claims Shiner "sexually abused, sexually assaulted and sexually exploited" Kevin from 1980 to 1984 when Kevin was a parishioner and Shiner, the parish priest. Kevin was 14 when it began; Shiner was in his mid-30s.
As a result of the sexual abuse, the lawsuit claims, Kevin suffered physical injuries and "severe emotional injuries including emotional distress, frustration, disassociation, post traumatic stress disorder and permanent psychological scarring which were exacerbated and intensified by lack of timely treatment."
In addition, the suit says Kevin suffered "spiritual loss" as a practicing Roman Catholic.
Shiner declined to speak directly about the allegations, but he did release a statement through his attorney, John Grasso of Glastonbury: "Father Shiner denies the accusations which Mr. Dumais has made. He is shocked to have been accused of such actions," Grasso says. "He has been a priest for over 30 years, and he has never before been accused of any such misconduct. He is deeply saddened by these accusations. He is confident that he will be vindicated at trial."
Kevin struggles to relate his side of the story.
"Maybe it's therapy for me in some way because every time I tell the story over again, it doesn't seem real sometimes," Kevin says. "But it is real and I can play it over in my mind. It's like it happened to somebody else, but it didn't, it happened to me. I almost feel like I'm unburdening myself of it."
Shiner's denial doesn't surprise Cindy Robinson. "We're confident we'll be able to prove the allegations at the time of trial," she says.
Robinson's firm, Tremont & Sheldon, is known for handling these kinds of issues. It was Tremont & Sheldon who litigated last year's series of cases against priests after 26 Bridgeport-area residents filed civil suits, claiming they were sexually abused as children by five priests.
The Bridgeport Diocese settled the suits last March, as well as a suit against a sixth priest. Robinson sought between $600,000 and $2 million for each victim in the Bridgeport cases. The parties eventually reached an undisclosed settlement.
Kevin filed suit in March 2001 after reading about the Bridgeport suits and realizing that the statute of limitations for filing a civil suit would run out once he hit age 35.
"I was having a lot of anxiety and a lot of issues about coming to speak to Cindy, but I felt like it was something I had to do. I was turning 35, and I felt like I was having a gun put to my head," he says. "If I didn't read [about the Bridgeport cases], I wouldn't be here today. I probably would have waited until my parents passed away."
Kevin attended public elementary school and then the St. Francis Middle School adjacent to the church. He was an altar boy and a sacristan — a church member who helps maintain the sacristy and prepare the altar for services.
"When [Shiner] first started [at the church] I didn't like him at all. I thought he was a bit pompous," Kevin says. But a friendship slowly developed. Kevin was big for his age, tall and somewhat shy. People always pegged him as older than he was. To his boy's eyes, Shiner brought glamour to the New Britain parish. "Father Shiner was young. He was hip. He was a handsome man, dark-haired, very dapper," Kevin says.
He never told his parents. The Dumais family were devout Catholics, the old-line type who revered priests, nuns and anything associated with their powerful church. Kevin's father was a machinist. His mother was a homemaker. Kevin kept his only sibling, a younger brother, in the dark, too.
"We don't talk about sex in the family. It's just something that's not discussed," he explains. Last August, he finally broke the news to his parents. "Still to this day, I would say that was probably the hardest thing that I've ever done," he says.
Kevin believes his parents may have suspected something was going on, as Kevin sometimes stayed with Shiner at the church rectory until the early morning hours, and the priest occasionally took their son on trips. Kevin says the two went to New York City.
"My mother was in awe of the fact that I was hanging out with these priests, and that's why they never really questioned anything as far as my mother goes, and my father didn't really pursue it," Kevin says.
He grows pensive, discussing his family. There have been problems and concerns separate from the Shiner issue. He doesn't want to go into them, but it grieves him to think he may cause his parents more pain. He's not even comfortable having his parents interviewed.
A friend, Margaret DeMarino of New Haven, is one of the few people who has known about the relationship. DeMarino, a freelance writer and corporate trainer, got to know Kevin in 1985 when the two belonged to a small group of friends.
"It was really common knowledge in the group, this association with Father Shiner. I think we all knew about it," she says. "I remember being shocked by it. Kevin seemed confused. I think there was a part of him that thought this God-like person had taken him and singled him out and done sexual things. He was trying to process it."
The two have remained good friends. In recent years DeMarino has seen a change in Kevin. "He started putting together the pieces. I think he's started to realize how many ways it has affected him and that it's just plain wrong," she says. "He's a really great guy, and he's gone through a lot of soul-searching on this."
Part of that soul-searching has been the struggle to put his family concerns aside.
"I have to really say this is not about my parents. This is about me, and I love my parents, but I have to think about me right now," Kevin sighs. "If I don't do this, I'm going to have a lifelong regret that I didn't do something about this. I was really scared shitless when I had to come over here."
Kevin Dumais' story is one in an exploding number of sexual molestation allegations being brought against parish priests. Accusations keep turning up: Dallas; Portland, Maine; Santa Fe; Tucson, Arizona; Philadelphia; Manchester, N.H. New stories seem to trickle in daily.
In the United States alone, more than 800 priests have been accused of abusing minors since the early 1980s. Estimates on how much the church has paid in legal and medical costs range from $300 million to $1 billion. An exact figure is difficult to pin down because many settlements are not disclosed.
Nowhere has the scandal hit harder — and more sensationally — than in Boston, where an investigation discovered that the Boston Archdiocese has settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests in the past 10 years. Some call that a conservative estimate. The archdiocese has taken the unprecedented step of turning over to law enforcement authorities the names of more than 80 priests accused of molesting children in the past 40 years. Bishops in New Hampshire and Maine have followed suit.
Almost half of Boston area Catholics recently polled called for Cardinal Bernard Law to resign. He says he won't. He says he wants to stay and make amends for past wrongs. His sentiments haven't assuaged the protestors who've picketed outside the Archdiocese's Brighton headquarters, carrying signs and chanting slogans such as "Two, four, six, eight, Cardinal Law you spoke too late," according to media reports.
"We have now approximately 20 names of different priests, but we're just one county. Other counties have others," says Martha Coakley, Middlesex County, Mass., district attorney.
In Connecticut, victims of childhood sexual abuse can press criminal charges until the age of 20, if they haven't previously reported the crime to police. State legislators last year tried to expand the law to allow victims to bring charges until they turn 48. The proposed bill died, but is being revived again this session. "A lot of states have no statute of limitations for sexual abuse of children, so that's another option," says State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, who supports the bill.
Monsignor Charles Johnson, personnel director for the Archdiocese of Hartford, says that on the advice of the church's lawyers he can't comment on the Shiner case.
"These allegations have been brought to court, and the matter's being considered there," Johnson says. As for Shiner, "he's not active in a parish," Johnson says. "He has been removed from his assignment pending the outcome of this litigation."
John Sitarz, one of the archdiocese's attorneys, won't comment on any pending cases, but he says a trial date in August 2003 has been set for this one. He's handled these types of cases for the archdiocese before, two within the past five years.
"There haven't been that many, but the ones that have been brought were resolved amicably by the parties," Sitarz says. "I think the Archdiocese of Hartford has been very fortunate in not having any large group or number of claims presented, like some dioceses. It almost goes without saying that the church is repulsed by allegations of this type."
Over the span of his career, Shiner served in six parishes under the control of the Hartford Archdiocese. His last assignment was to Sacred Heart in Suffield. Other postings, in addition to St. Francis of Assisi, include St. Brigid in West Hartford, Our Lady of Fatima in Wallingford, St. Elizabeth in Branford and St. Mary in Farmington.
"We are just in the investigative stages of our suit. Right now we only know of one victim of Father Shiner," Robinson says.
"I think that speaks a great deal as to the credibility of Mr. Dumais' allegations," says Grasso, Shiner's attorney.
If it turns out that Shiner is guilty, he won't be an anomaly.
"I have represented victims of sexual abuse against the Hartford Diocese," says New Haven attorney Tom McNamara. None was against Shiner. And although McNamara doesn't have current cases against the archdiocese, he does have one pending against a Protestant church in Groton.
Last month police arrested the cantor at New York City's prominent Temple Emanu-El on charges that he molested his nephew.
"It's not confined to the Catholics, although I think that's where most of them are," McNamara says, adding that the Catholic Church's legal maneuverings are designed to stall and to protect the church. "Their legal tactics mirror the mindset of the hierarchy," he says. "It's a corporate arrogance since the Middle Ages."
Hartford Archbishop Daniel Cronin is named in Kevin's suit, but he wasn't archbishop from 1980-84, when the alleged abuse occurred. The suit doesn't hold Cronin responsible for what happened to Kevin. But it charges both him and the archdiocese with negligence, alleging that priests weren't adequately supervised and those suspected of abuse were moved from parish to parish. On top of that, it alleges treatment was not required for either offenders or victims and that there was no policy requiring priests who suspect one of their own is abusing a child to report their concerns to the archdiocese.
The lawsuit paints a portrait of a diocese where pedophile priests are essentially permitted to range unchecked.
Church attorney John Sitarz rejects this portrayal, saying the diocese today acts aggressively on complaints of sexual misconduct.
"The matter is investigated as fully as is reasonably possible and to the extent that there's any basis for believing this occurred ... the priest will be asked to undergo an evaluation," he says. "I can assure you what doesn't happen is what is sort of the stereotype: Somebody is diagnosed to be a pedophile and you just send them to a different parish. The public really needs to know that that isn't the way things are done."
It began one night in 1984, Kevin says.
"It was summer, and we had gone out. We had cocktails first at the rectory. We had gone out to dinner, I think it was to Shenanigans, and then we went back to the rectory for more drinks, and I don't know what led up to it. I had shorts on, and I remember the chair I was sitting in," Kevin says.
The 14-year-old sat on a chair in the priest's sitting room. The rectory building was empty except for the two of them in Shiner's apartment suite on the second floor. Amiable, genial chatter flowed between them. It was exciting to be alone with a person so admired and esteemed. Kevin felt at home, warm, relaxed.
"He had come over to me, and I remember he had gotten on his knees, and he had put his hand up my shorts and started kissing me," he recalls. "I don't actually remember what I was thinking at that point in time. From there, it went to the bedroom, and that's where we engaged in having sex."
Kevin recounts this scene easily, in great detail, describing the chair and the coffee table near it where Shiner kept a collection of greeting cards in a drawer. The priest liked to have a supply of cards on hand to send to friends, family and parishioners.
The sexual encounters weren't on a regular basis. Kevin has trouble recalling the exact frequency, but he calls the episodes "sporadic," saying they would typically occur once a month or once every two months.
"It always happened within the rectory and it was always the same set-up: cocktails, dinner and sex. That's really the only thing I remember as far as a pattern," Kevin says. "I always thought it was funny because every time we went out to dinner, I thought, 'Oh, this may possibly happen.' Because at that point in time, I had a lot of raging hormones and I was game for anything, also."
Missing from Kevin's voice is any hint of fear. Shiner and he were friends. Their encounters were consensual — as consensual as a 14-year-old can be. It was a relationship Kevin didn't want to see end. "I was very secretive about it after the fact because I had to protect Father Shiner, who he was, because if people found out what was going on between us, that would possibly end this relationship. I was sort of like his little PR person," Kevin recalls.
It's not an unusual dynamic, says Dr. James Gill, a psychiatrist and Jesuit priest.
"People who abuse children sexually are often not violent. Often there is a kind of tender, even loving, attitude toward children. The abusive behavior flows from the pathology which boils down to: These are the feelings and these are the expressions you would like to see them manifesting toward an adult, but there's been an arrest in their development so they're not capable of finding attraction in a same-age mate," Gill says.
Speaking from his office at the Christian Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality in Chicago, Gill is amiable and happy to share his insights into the issue plaguing the Catholic Church. Gill is founder and director of the Chicago institute. He is also a senior consultant at Hartford's Institute of Living.
"One of the things that you know about these periods of sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence is that they have the potential to have both short-range and long-range effects that are damaging, and the array of possibilities is enormous," Gill says. "Some people who are abused have very slight to moderate reactions emotionally or socially. Others have quite severe reactions, so you can't generalize."
While the emotional damage to children abused by clergy can manifest in a variety of ways and be long-reaching, the spiritual fallout can be equally devastating.
"You develop a set of images of God as you go through childhood and these are formed partly by the contact with the clergy that you are either blessed with or cursed with," Gill says. "Very often what [the damage] amounts to is the shock that's experienced that a clergyman of any sort would get involved in this and so savagely destroy the trust relationship. And then there's often the feeling that God has not protected the child from the threat, from the evil. That's one of our prayers. In the 'Our Father,' right? 'Deliver us from evil."'
Gill advocates education and careful screening of prospective clergy, saying the church needs to acknowledge the reality and complexity of human sexuality.
"What's multiplying [today] is the evidence and the publicity, what's multiplying is the public awareness. Abusive behavior has been going on in our country and in our world from time immemorial," he says.
"If you're going to stop somebody from being abusive, you've got to recognize they have human sexuality. ... You've got to challenge them and get them into therapy so they can be helped to grow and handle the pathology without damaging others," he says. "We have to have a profound understanding of the stages of development, the ones that are normal, and we have to be able to recognize pathological variance."
St. Francis of Assisi Church is as unremarkable as this blustery, gray day in February. A frigid wind tears through the parking lot that separates the brick and stone church and its namesake middle school.
The rectory sits just across the driveway. It's painted a pearly white now, with metal, sliding windows and a detached three-car garage. Everything looks new, crisp and efficient, like a modern condominium complex. It was Shiner who updated it, Kevin says, calling the previous rectory a "dingy" place. Kevin still attends church here. He still serves as a sacristan.
"I always felt as if this was a second home to me. I always felt very much a part of the entire place. Slowly I feel like I've become an alien, even though I've been here for 22 years now," he says.
The morbidly curious sometimes travel to scenes of death and disaster. Locales of destruction have become tourist spots. Tour bus drivers point out Nicole Brown Simpson's condominium. Guests pay good money to spend the night in the Fall River, Mass., house where Lizzie Borden allegedly did in her parents. Visitors must expect these places to "feel" like something; the traces of their past are supposed to cling to them still.
St. Francis doesn't feel like anything but another Catholic parish in a struggling city. The nice, bespectacled lady in the middle school's office is happy to point out the rectory building. The middle-aged lady in the rectory office welcomes visitors. "May I help you?" she asks, smiling.
St. Francis, himself, his cement features beatific and serene, stares down from his pedestal above the church doors. Welcome, he seems to say. Come in. You won't find anything amiss here. This is a place of contemplation and sanctuary. Scandal? I don't know what you're talking about.
And whoever does know isn't sharing. "I still have people who come up to me and ask me continuously, 'How's Father Shiner doing?' I see it in my own parents. Denial runs very strong," Kevin says.
Almost 20 years have passed since Kevin shadowed the dapper young priest who made him feel, for the first time, like somebody really special. It was during his senior year in high school that Kevin says the sexual relationship came to a screeching halt.
The end began, Kevin says, when he confided his secret to a friend who also happened to be experiencing a similar secret with a different priest. The friend told his priest, and this priest contacted Shiner.
"He was pissed, and that's really the only time I've known him to get mad at me," Kevin says of Shiner's reaction. "He was mad at the fact that I was talking about that we were in a relationship and that this other priest knew about this. And that was the end of it. There was no more sexual relationship whatsoever after that point."
After the blow-up, a friendship of sorts persisted between Shiner and Kevin. The two would still go out to dinner occasionally, Kevin says. And when Shiner was transferred to St. Elizabeth parish in Branford, they continued to get together along with a mutual friend. As the years passed, contact grew spotty. Kevin did a stint at Central Connecticut State University but didn't graduate. Shiner invited him to the celebration of his 25th anniversary as a priest.
Kevin later helped Shiner move into St. Mary's Farmington parish.
"I thought maybe we could rekindle the friendship that we had prior," he says. "I went once to that parish and helped him with boxes ... and helped him get organized, like I used to do at St. Francis. And I just got this feeling as though I really wasn't wanted there. He was being polite."
Kevin hadn't seen Shiner in at least a year when he ran into him that day in the lobby of Hartford Hospital.
Emotionally, Kevin managed to hold himself together, more or less, until the age of 30. That's when things really began unraveling. Sorrow and anxiety dogged him. In his apartment, at his job as a phone operator for a Hartford area hospital, with his family, with friends — nowhere was safe.
"I had a very pervasive sense of sadness. I would start breaking down and crying. I didn't know why it was happening," he says in the calm and privacy of Robinson's office.
Kevin's in a relationship now. His partner and he share an apartment in New Britain. Things have been getting better. There's no denying it. How Shiner's faring, he has no idea. His memories of the priest are sullied by his realization that Shiner was a "con artist."
Some parishioners from St. Mary in Farmington remember the priest differently. "My wife really liked him. They all loved him," says Wilbur Charette, an usher at the church.
"He was always pleasant to me. I have no animosity toward the man at all," says Charette's wife, Carol. "He attended our women's guild meetings. He was very supportive of the St. Mary's ladies guild."
Another parishioner who has attended St. Mary since the 1950s and preferred to remain anonymous stammers in shock and hurt at news of the lawsuit. "[Shiner] was very nice to me, basically he was very outgoing," she says. "Children and young families liked him. He did a lot with kids. I heard parents saying how much they liked him."
Kevin Dumais is still a believer. This may sound strange to some people. It may sound incomprehensible to others. But, despite the many confusions of his life, there's one misunderstanding he's managed to dodge. Kevin doesn't seem to have ever mistaken Kenneth Shiner for God, Himself. In fact, it was Shiner who liked to remind Kevin: Priests are people, too.
"The church is like any other institution sometimes. We have problems. We have to work with it," Kevin says. "But it seems as though they have a very secretive tendency in dealing with issues sometimes. I think they need to be more forthcoming in how they deal with things."
But mystery has always been part of the Roman Catholic Church's allure. The incense, the cleansing magic of the confessional, the cardinals hovering in the Vatican picking the next pope while the world awaits their telltale puff of smoke.
Whatever the truth behind the allegations against Kenneth Shiner, both Shiner and Kevin Dumais are now waiting, too.
They're waiting for the answers to their personal trials, and like the rest of the Catholic community, they're waiting to see how their church answers one of the greatest crises to have rocked its foundation.
"I, still to this day," Kevin says, "have not been approached by anybody from the church and asked how I'm doing or how this affects me."
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