Norwich Bishop Questioned on Abuse

By Katie Melone
May 9, 2002
Norwich (CT) Bulletin

Norwich, CT - In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, the Most Rev. Daniel A. Hart shed little light on the Norwich Diocese's investigation into alleged child sexual abuse by priests.

Bishop Hart talked about three alleged cases linked to the Norwich Diocese, including an April letter Hart received from former Putnam resident Charles Vigeant, who alleges that two priests living in the diocese in the 1960s sexually abused him. The bishop apologized Tuesday for failing to contact the state Department of Children and Families about the allegation.

The Rev. Richard T. Buongirno, a former priest at the St. Matthias Parish in East Lyme, was arrested in 1999 on charges that he sexually abused a child, and is named in a lawsuit against the diocese.

A former priest at St. Mary Church in Putnam, the Rev. Bernard Bissonnette, allegedly molested several boys at the parish in the 1960s. Two Windham County brothers of one of Bissonnette's alleged victims, Gene Michael and John Deary, have requested that the diocese turn over the priest's employee file.

Question: Have you or someone on your staff reviewed the personnel files of all diocesan employees, specifically with an eye for allegations or signs of abuse?

Answer: Someone on the staff has. People have done that. Yes.

Q: Have you or someone on your staff found anything in those records that resulted in a report to the state's attorney or to the state Department of Children and Families?

A: I'll not answer that question.

Q: Are you in agreement with DCF that you should report all allegations, no matter how old, to authorities, or are you simply reporting complaints that have come up since 1991?

A: We try to follow the law, yes.

Q: Then in the case of Charles Vigeant's letter, why did you not report it?

A: It was a quasi-anonymous letter.

Q: Are you saying that you did not think that you were required under the mandated reporter law to contact DCF about a letter that contained allegations of sexual abuse because it did not contain a full address?

A: As I say, I did report it, but that was not my understanding before, but now I've learned that it is.

Q: The letter was signed and contained Vigeant's city and state and ZIP code.

A: I consider that a quasi-anonymous letter. As you know, it was not addressed to me. It was a copy of a letter to someone else.

Q: The letter was not addressed to you, but didn't the allegations contained in the letter your office received raise enough concern for you to contact DCF?

A: No comment on that.

Q: In the case of a priest like the man accused in Charles Vigeant's letter or Father Bissonnette, do you contact another diocese warning them of the allegations that have been lodged against the priest?

A: We are in touch with the religious congregation, yes.

Q: Did you notify the province in the case of the priest - who may still have access to children - accused in Chuck Vigeant's letter?

A: I will not get into specific about individual allegations.

Q: Approximately how many complaints have you received since the priest scandal in Boston, and have you forwarded all of them to DCF?

A: We don't discuss allegations or complaints with the press.

Q: We understand you may not wish to disclose the details of the complaints, but could you estimate on how many complaints you have received?

A: No.

Q: In the case of the Rev. Bernard Bissonnette, which the Deary brothers have repeatedly brought to the attention of you and your predecessor, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, why have you refused to release his file to them or to authorities?

A: By Connecticut law, I can't release an employee's file without a subpoena. If the state's attorney wants it or if the DCF wants it, of course we'd cooperate with them.

Q: Were you made aware of Bissonnette's file when you became bishop?

A: No comment.

Q: Is Father Bissonnette still on the Norwich diocesan payroll?

A: No.

Q: Is he employed with another diocese right now?

A: I don't think so, no.

Q: In the lawsuit involving the Rev. Richard T. Buongirno, the diocese maintains that it cannot be held liable for the former priest's actions because he took a vow of celibacy. Therefore, any priest who violates that vow of refraining from sexual relations is acting outside his role as a diocesan representative. This is a valid legal maneuver in the business world, but is it valid for the church, especially given the current scandal and the church's professed concern over the suffering of abuse victims?

A: I have no comment on that.

Q: Regarding the scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston - at which you were trained, ordained and served for nearly two decades - do you believe Cardinal Bernard Law should resign?

A: I have no comment for you.

Q: While you served as auxiliary bishop in the Boston archdiocese, under Cardinals Law and Medieros, were you aware of problems involving priests being transferred after allegations of abuse surfaced?

A: I have no comment.

Q: You have said you are proud of the diocese's zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual abuse. Have you made any changes, or do you anticipate changes, as a result of the recent scandals?

A: No, there has been no change in the policy.

Q: Are you planning on making any changes?

A: I have no comment about that.

Q: We've read the policy that is posted on the diocese Web site but wanted clarification on the exact procedure that is followed if a person calls the diocese and makes an allegation of sexual abuse against a priest or other diocesan employee. When are you notified about it?

A: You'll have to read the policy and discover that yourself.

Q: Does the Diocese conduct internal investigations into allegations of priest abuse? Are any priests currently under investigation? Have any priests been suspended?

A: No comment.


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