Sex Abuse Suits Last Resort, 2 Say

By Bill Zajac
Republican [Greenfield MA]
September 24, 2003

GREENFIELD - Two people who filed suits this week against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield charging they were abused by priests said yesterday they did so out of frustration with the handling of their complaints.

At a press conference at the office of their lawyer John J. Stobierski, each said the diocese was notified of their accusations months ago in hopes of avoiding legal action.

Trina L. Cysz, 31, of Belchertown said she twice notified the diocese's lawyer she was accusing the Rev. John J. Bonzagni of abusing her sexually when she was a child. The first letter was sent in November 2002, she said.

Cysz said she never got a reply from the diocese. She filed suit Monday in Hampden Superior Court.

The diocese, in a statement yesterday, said it had urged Cysz's lawyer to have her contact the Misconduct Commission, a nine-member lay panel that investigates accusations against priests.

Diocesan policy on the protection of children states all allegations of child sexual abuse will be investigated, said Laura F. Reilly, diocesan director of counseling and prevention. It does not address the method of notifying the diocese, she said.

Where allegations prove credible, the priest is placed on administrative leave, she said.

Bonzagni, who denies the accusations, was assigned to St. Mary's Church in Lee at the time Cysz said she was abused while a student at Lee High School. He is on the diocesan tribunal staff.

Martin P. Bono, 48, of Chicopee said he filed suit only after what he calls unfair treatment by the Misconduct Commission. He said at a commission meeting, the accused priest, the Rev. Richard F. Meehan, was allowed legal representation.

Bono claims he was discouraged by a commission representative from seeking legal counsel until he got a surprise call saying the commission would meet with him in two days and to "bring my lawyer."

"I couldn't believe it. I had never hired a lawyer. It wasn't enough time for me. It was insane," said Bono.

The diocese denies discouraging Bono from hiring a lawyer.

Bono's suit accuses Meehan of abusing him when Bono was a student at Our Lady of Hope School in Springfield and Meehan a priest at the parish. Through his lawyer, Meehan has denied the allegation.

James L. Bell, chairman of the Misconduct Commission, said yesterday the panel's handling of the accusation wasn't perfect.

"We were going through a learning curve" regarding policy and allowing lawyers into the process, Bell said.

Bono said he was frustrated it took more than six months for the commission to hear and act on his accusations.

"There is some legitimacy to (the claim) it took a while, but we were not trying to stall it," Bell said.

Meehan was removed from all ministry in July 2002.

Bono said his frustration increased last week when diocesan lawyers filed a motion to dismiss five clergy sexual abuse suits on grounds of charitable immunity citing a state law giving liability immunity to institutions such as churches and colleges for acts committed before September 1971.

Plaintiffs in the suits targeted by the charitable immunity motion said trying to dismiss their cases in that manner is the diocese's way of telling them their lives and pain do not matter.

Because Bono said his abuse occurred before September 1971, he believes his suit will become the target of a similar motion for dismissal.

"I would like to invite the bishop (Thomas L. Dupre) to sit with me at my table and tell my three children that I don't matter," said Bono.

Judge Constance M. Sweeney is expected to hear arguments on the charitable immunity motion at 2 p.m. today in Hampden Superior Court.

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