July 20, 2021
By The Day Editorial Board
The past moral bankruptcy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich has led inevitably to its financial bankruptcy.
Last week the diocese serving the Connecticut counties of New London, Middlesex, Windham and Tolland, as well as Fishers Island, N.Y., filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Code.
Along with Catholic dioceses across the nation and the world, the Norwich Diocese shares a shameful legacy of placing the protection of the church’s reputation above protecting children, above acting lawfully, and above the Great Commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
When scores of priests were found to have molested children — predominately but not exclusively boys — no love was shown to the victims. Instead, the truth was buried and pedophile priests were quietly transferred to other parishes, the families there unaware of the past misconduct. Often the result was new victims. It was evil.
Instead of protecting the reputation of the Catholic Church, the coverup sullied it, drove away many of the faithful when the truth became known, and left behind an incalculable multitude of damaged people.
The local diocese has settled numerous lawsuits involving dozens of victims, the details and damages hidden by nondisclosure agreements. But the scope and the degree of negligence in one outstanding case are so egregious that the diocese is telling the court it needs the relief of a bankruptcy reorganization to survive.
That case involves the former Mount St. John residential school for troubled boys in Deep River. According to the bankruptcy filing, the diocese has been named in about 54 lawsuits by men who were once boys at the school. They contend they were victims of sexual abuse during the tenure of the late Christian Brother K. Paul McGlade, the executive director from 1990-2002.
Stunningly and inexplicably, former Norwich Bishop Daniel Reilly, president of the school’s trustees, brought in McGlade from literally the other side of the world — Australia — to run the school. This despite the fact that McGlade had been accused there of sexually assaulting young boys. The diocese has offered no explanation for Reilly’s decision.
In a video explaining the reason for the bankruptcy filing, current Bishop Michael Cote states it will “provide a comprehensive resolution for survivors” and “assure all survivors are included and treated fairly.”
The statements are an attempt to put the best spin on the reality that a Chapter 11 filing, by its very nature, is a strategy to force creditors, including in this case victims seeking payment of damages, to settle for less than they would otherwise be entitled.
In fairness, it was largely left for Cote, who was appointed bishop of Norwich in 2003, to clean up the mess left to him by his predecessors. There have been no allegations he transferred priests to protect their profane acts. Under his watch, the diocese initiated a program intended to prevent abuse and that requires the immediate referral to law enforcement when it is suspected.
While Cote was seemingly left with no other options, it is troubling that a matter of such high moral importance will be dealt with in the cold, calculating manner of a proceeding created to help failed businesses survive.
Attorneys for the diocese — and they have hired powerful ones, including Hartford-based Robinson & Cole and Norwich-based Brown Jacobson — will seek to protect as many diocesan assets as they can from being factored into payouts.
In the filings, the diocese takes the position that the 51 parishes, its schools, and its charitable organizations are separate corporations beyond the reach of the bankruptcy proceedings.
It is a conundrum for the court to sort out. On the one hand, why should parishioners be punished for deeds for which they had no control? And charities such as the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen in Norwich and Catholic Charities do provide an important public service. On the other hand, what priority is greater than trying to make these victims whole?
And what of victims who have been prevented from seeking compensation because the statute of limitations to file litigation has passed, a statute the church lobbied to keep in place? Any just settlement of this Chapter 11 reorganization should include creation of a fund to provide help to such people.
In his video, Cote depicts the bankruptcy reorganization as “an equitable way to right the terrible wrongs of the past.”
It is not. The sad reality is that there appears to be no means to that end.