|Tough Questions Await Victim of Alleged Sex Abuse
Diocese of Norwich Attorneys' Queries to Be Reviewed by Judge
By Joe Wojtas
The Day [Norwich, CT]
July 5, 2007
Identify every person you've had a relationship or friendship with since May 1964, when you were 5 years old. Provide their names, addresses, the nature and dates of the relationships and why they ended.
Identify every clinic, hospital, doctor, nurse, psychiatrist, alternative practitioner or other medical provider who has treated you seen since age 5. Provide their names and addresses, the conditions you were treated for, dates of treatment and diagnoses.
Name each school you attended and when, the subjects you studied and the grades you received. Name each health insurance company that has covered you since you were 5, their addresses, policy numbers and the dates of coverage. Name every prescription you've taken since you were 5, who prescribed it, the dates and frequency you took it and for what conditions.
These are just some of the questions attorneys for the Diocese of Norwich want Mary Jane Leverone of East Lyme to answer in her sexual-abuse lawsuit against the diocese, the late Rev. Thomas Shea and Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Gales Ferry.
Leverone, now 48 and divorced, claims that Shea kissed, massaged and fondled her from 1969 to 1971 when she was between 10 and 12 years old. The suit charges that the diocese ignored warnings that Shea posed a danger to children and assigned him to Our Lady of Lourdes.
Leverone contends the alleged abuse by Shea has caused her a lifetime of serious physical and psychological problems as well as difficulties in maintaining relationships and holding down a job.
One of Leverone's attorneys, James Hall of Pawcatuck, said in documents filed in New London Superior Court that the questions border on harassment and are "beyond the recall of most human beings."
"Clearly the result of these interrogatories are to embarrass, psychologically overwhelm and emotionally deflate the plaintiff," he wrote in his response.
Hall called some of the questions ridiculous and questioned the significance of what grade Leverone received in eighth-grade Earth Science.
"It's unfathomable that anyone could accurately list the exact dates of when a friendship began or ended," he said.
But in court documents, diocese attorney Anthony Saraco of Branford said what is ridiculous is that Leverone claims every single relationship she's had since 1964 has been affected by the alleged abuse by Shea.
Excerpts from a psychiatric report quoted in court documents state that Leverone had a painful childhood and her parents divorced when she was 10. She felt unhappy, lonely and unwanted.
Saraco argued that because Leverone is making "seemingly boundless" claims of psychiatric damage, the diocese is entitled to ask the questions to properly defend itself, especially since it appears she suffered from psychological conditions before the alleged assault. That is why the diocese is asking questions that go back to 1964 when she was 5, he said.
Saraco argued in court documents that the questions are "not overly broad and burdensome" but are "delineated by the parameters of the claimed damages." A judge is now being asked to rule on which questions are proper.
Court documents also reveal that Leverone has offered to settle the suit for $1.2 million but that the diocese's insurance will pay only $500,000. The rest would have to come from a special fund the diocese uses to pay settlements to alleged victims.
The diocese and its insurer have so far paid more than $4 million to people who have accused diocesan priests of sexual abuse. Three cases are still pending in court.
Joseph Mirrione, a New Haven attorney who is the president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, said that in typical personal-injury cases such as car accidents and slip-and-falls, the practice book that guides lawyers in Connecticut allows them to ask 20 standard questions of plaintiffs.
The questions the diocese is asking in the Leverone case go far beyond the scope of those 20, he said, but added that more involved questions are common when cases get more complex.
In such cases, Mirrione said, a plaintiff can file objections to the questions and a judge has to examine each question to see if it will provide information that is relevant to the claims being made in the case. The plaintiff and defense attorneys and judge can also tailor the questions so only the relevant information is obtained.
"It's a thoughtful process to balance the interests of the plaintiff and their privacy with the defendant's need to get information to provide a defense," he said.
Mirrione said the questions and answers are used to help determine the credibility of the plaintiff and whether the actions of the defendant caused the injuries the plaintiff is alleging. For example, he said, if the plaintiff is alleging she had difficulty maintaining relationships, the questions might help determine whether that is because of the alleged abuse or some other traumatic event.
"It's a delicate balancing act with psychological issues. It can open up a lot of doors, which can be very painful," he said. "These are the kinds of issues that can keep judges awake at night."
Mirrione said a plaintiff could respond that he or she doesn't recall the information, but if the plaintiff does know the answer to a question he or she can't refuse to answer it. If that happens, judges have wide discretion to force compliance, including citing the person for contempt of court or not allowing certain evidence the plaintiff wants introduced.
Shea was accused of molesting at least 16 girls in 11 parishes in the diocese. Bishops frequently moved Shea from one church to another after parents complained about his behavior, which often involved kissing and fondling young girls. The bishops, including the Rev. Daniel P. Reilly, never reported Shea to police.
Shea was ordained in 1946 and sent to his first assignment, a Catholic girls' summer camp in New Hartford. Shea served in churches in New London, Norwich, Mystic, Groton, Gales Ferry, Montville and Plainfield, among other towns.
When Reilly transferred Shea to St. Joseph's Church in New London in 1976, it was with orders that Shea be kept away from children in the parish school. Girls at St. Joseph's said Shea liked to take photos of them in their bathing suits. Shea kept scrapbooks of the girls he took photos of over the years.
Reilly removed Shea from the ministry in 1983 and sent him for treatment after an adult woman said Shea had made her masturbate him when she was a young girl.
Leverone's lawsuit, which was filed in 2005, charges that Reilly received numerous psychological and medical reports about Shea while Reilly was bishop. The questions posed to Leverone also ask her to identify which documents the diocese has that show it knew about Shea's alleged actions. But the diocese has refused to release 52 documents about Shea to Leverone's lawyers, citing various privileges that prevent their release.
David Clohessy, the national director of The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the diocese's questioning of Leverone is common in priest abuse cases across the country.
"The bishops express compassion in public and then they sic the most aggressive lawyers on us they can," he said. "I understand they have to determine damages, but these kind of questions are purely to harass and discourage the victims. They want victims to tell people they've been put through the ringer in hopes of keeping other victims quiet."
Asked whether the diocese supports asking the questions posed to Leverone, diocesan spokesman Michael Strammiello issued the following statement:
"In the discovery phase, both the plaintiff and the defendant are subjected normally to arduous questioning. This is typical of any personal-injury case. If anyone objects to the questions that he or she is being asked to answer, his/her attorney can object on his/her behalf and obtain a ruling from the court to determine whether or not he/she will be required to answer the question being asked.
"By nature, the legal system is of course an adversarial system — far from gentle and perfect — but with equal respect for both sides. The Diocese isn't required to be there for discovery questioning. We are kept informed, but generally do not participate until or unless it is necessary. We will be watching closely as always."
Leverone's other attorney, Thomas McNamara of New Haven, said his and Hall's objections to the questions are on solid ground.
"Miss Leverone feels like they were filed to wear her down, and who can blame her? Though they are extremely unreasonable and a judge will ultimately rule on our objections, they are in marked contrast to the vile and reprehensible conduct of certain dyed-in-the-wool Catholic diocese attorneys in the '90s, particularly during depositions, when their questions and rude demeanor were clearly designed to harass, intimidate, embarrass and blame the victim," he said.
Clohessy said he understands the diocese wants to defend itself, "but there's a big difference between what is legally permissible and what is morally right."
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