Diocese Defense Criticized as too Aggressive; Vernon Man's Integrity Impugned, His Lawyer Says

By Alex Wood
Journal Inquirer [Norwich]
May 11, 2007

Following a Vernon man's $1.2 million settlement of a sexual-abuse lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich and the Society of Jesus, the lawyers in the case continue to disagree over how aggressively religious organizations should defend themselves against such lawsuits.

The lawyer representing plaintiff Joshua Hethcote, now 31, says the tactics used in defending the diocese by lawyer Joseph T. Sweeney, a Manchester resident who practices with the Hartford firm of Halloran & Sage, caused Hethcote "more pain."

"They have impugned the integrity and honesty of the victim," said Hethcote's lawyer, Robert I. Reardon Jr. of New London.

But Sweeney said the major issue in the case was which defendant was most responsible for any abuse Hethcote suffered as a teenaged parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Storrs in the early 1990s.

The diocese ultimately contributed $300,000 to the settlement of the lawsuit while the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuit order, paid the other $900,000.

Hethcote, who formerly lived with his family in Coventry, charged in the lawsuit that he was sexually abused by Eugene Orteneau, who was then a Jesuit priest assigned to the Storrs parish but has since left the priesthood.

"It's unfortunate, but you have to look at where blame belongs," Sweeney said. "Compared to the Jesuits, the diocese was relatively innocent."

If the case had been litigated to conclusion, Sweeney said, there was a "high likelihood" that the diocese would have been exonerated.

Nevertheless, Sweeney said, the diocese agreed to contribute to the settlement of Hethcote's lawsuit, in part, because jury selection and trial could have taken a total of six to seven weeks. That would have translated into substantial legal bills.

When the lawsuit was filed in April 2005, Reardon believed that Orteneau had died. He said he learned during the litigation that that was incorrect and eventually located the former priest, who was living in North Carolina and working in a catering service with his brother.

Reardon said Orteneau initially agreed to talk to him. "It was very important to Mr. Hethcote to have an opportunity to confront his molester," Reardon added, saying that one purpose of such a confrontation would have been therapeutic.

But Reardon said Sweeney told Orteneau's lawyer that the ex-priest faced the possibility of criminal prosecution in Connecticut, effectively blocking the interview. Reardon disputes Sweeney's legal positions, saying Connecticut then had a three-year statute of limitations for the crimes at issue.

Reardon said his question for Sweeney is: "Why are you concerned about helping molesters so they don't get arrested?"

But Sweeney said Orteneau's North Carolina lawyer called him to ask about the legal issues related to Reardon's attempt to interview the ex-priest. Sweeney said a Connecticut Superior Court judge had held - in a 1995 case in which Sweeney was involved - that a person's absence from the state could suspend the running of the statute of limitations.

Sweeney said lawyers commonly share such information with out-of-state colleagues as a courtesy. He quoted the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black as saying, "Even bad men deserve good law."

Because St. Thomas Aquinas is on the "fringe" of the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs, it has been staffed with priests from orders specializing in the "educational apostolate," Sweeney said. Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, who then headed the diocese, chose the Jesuits to run the parish in 1990.

In August 1990, a Jesuit superior nominated Orteneau to be one of three priests assigned to the parish, saying in a letter to Reilly that Orteneau was interrupting graduate studies in drama at New York University to take the assignment and would be an excellent fit, according to Sweeney.

Reilly relied on that recommendation, the lawyer said, and the three Jesuits began their duties at the parish in late August 1990.

Sweeney said the Jesuits removed Orteneau from the parish in August 1994 because he was required to undergo a third year of "spiritual formation," as all Jesuits do several years after starting their duties as priests.

It wasn't until nine years later, in August 2003, that the diocese received its first complaint about sexual abuse by Orteneau, which came from Hethcote's sister, Jennifer Hethcote Jello, Sweeney said. He said she named two men - not including her brother - as having been abused by Orteneau when they were teenagers.

The claim that Joshua Hethcote also had been abused didn't come to the attention of the diocese until the spring of 2005, Sweeney said. Hethcote filed his lawsuit in April of that year.

Joshua Hethcote testified during a deposition that the sexual abuse began around his 16th birthday in November 1991 and continued until after he turned 18 in 1993, according to Sweeney. Although 16 is the age of consent for sexual intercourse under Connecticut's criminal laws, people can be held civilly liable for sexual abuse of children up to age 18.

Hethcote went to college at the University of South Florida, where Orteneau showed up and moved in with him, Reardon said. Sweeney added, however, that Hethcote had reached age 18 by that time.

Reardon said Orteneau subsequently was arrested on a street in Sarasota, Fla., after an apparent suicide attempt and later received psychological treatment at the Institute of Living in Hartford.

For years, Hethcote never told anybody about the abuse, Sweeney said.

Even though his deposition came some five months after he had publicly filed the lawsuit - not seeking to use a "John Doe" alias, as many plaintiffs in such lawsuits do - Hethcote said he hadn't sought mental-health care because he was too ashamed to tell anyone about the abuse, Sweeney said.

He added that Orteneau had openly described himself as a recovering alcoholic to the Jesuit who served as pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas but that the diocese never learned that. There was no indication that Orteneau had previously engaged in sexual misconduct, Sweeney added.

At one point while Orteneau was at St. Thomas Aquinas, a Jesuit came from Boston and interviewed several children about the possibility of improper sexual contact, Reardon said. But Sweeney said the diocese was never told about the investigation.

When the investigating priests asked Hethcote about sexual activity, Reardon said, "My client denied it. Who wouldn't?"


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