Norwich Diocese Faces Racketeering Lawsuit over Abusive Priests

By Elizabeth Hamilton
Hartford Courant

December 31, 2008,0,4697997.story

A New London lawyer has brought what is believed to be the first racketeering case against the Catholic Church in Connecticut, alleging that the Norwich Diocese engaged in a conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse of children by priests.

The lawsuit says the Norwich Diocese, its former bishop, Daniel Reilly, and its current vicar general, the Rev. Thomas McBride, should be held accountable under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act more commonly known as RICO for conspiring to cover up the criminal conduct of abusive priests.

The complaint was brought by a Connecticut woman, identified only as "Jane Doe," who alleges that she was molested by the Rev. Thomas W. Shea, now deceased, in 1976. Shea has been accused of sexually abusing at least 16 girls in the 11 parishes he served in the Norwich Diocese.

According to published reports and the current lawsuit, Shea was transferred numerous times from the time of the first complaints, in the 1950s, until he was placed on leave by Reilly in 1983. Reilly, who retired as bishop of the Worcester, Mass., diocese in 2004, was bishop of the Norwich Diocese from 1975 to 1994.

In addition to citing the details of Shea's history, the lawsuit gives examples of five other cases involving priests who have been the subject of abuse accusations, including the Revs. Bruno Primavera, Robert Marcantonio, Peter Inzerillo, Richard Buongirno and Bernard Bissonnette. In all of the cases cited, according to the lawsuit, the priests were transferred to new parishes after sexual abuse complaints were made against them, at which point they abused again.

"RICO sounds like it involves gangsters, but it doesn't necessarily. It involves this kind of conspiracy we've described," said attorney Robert Reardon, who is representing Jane Doe. "We tried to demonstrate through a number of different instances, and through a course of certain conduct, how this conspiracy went. Whenever there was a complaint, the priest would be transferred."

He said RICO statutes have been used elsewhere in the country in abusive priest cases, but he believes this is the first time they have been used in Connecticut.

Under RICO, a person who is a member of a criminal organization, or an "enterprise," that has committed any two of 35 crimes within a 10-year period can be charged with racketeering. Those found guilty of racketeering can be fined as much as $25,000 and/or sentenced to 20 years in prison per racketeering count.

In the case of the lawsuit against the Norwich Diocese, though, RICO also permits a private individual such as Jane Doe who has been damaged by the actions of an enterprise to sue and collect damages.

This is the heart of the case Reardon is attempting to make against the Norwich Diocese that Jane Doe was harmed by the acts committed by all of the parties, who together constitute an enterprise under the RICO law.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of "intentionally, recklessly and/or negligently" concealing the criminal conduct of certain priests, failing to report criminal conduct, obstructing justice, evading criminal investigation, prosecution and liability, bribing victims to keep criminal conduct secret and engaging in mail and/or wire fraud, among other things.

According to the lawsuit, Doe met Shea in 1976 when he was stationed at St. Joseph's Church in New London. By the time Shea arrived at St. Joseph's, he had been transferred six times and placed on sick leave twice, the lawsuit said, because of the complaints from parents about his behavior with young girls.

Doe was 13 when Shea began to sexually assault her during "spiritual counseling and supervision," the lawsuit alleges, and has suffered the consequences since then. Shea was transferred twice more by Reilly until two women, who were allegedly molested by Shea when they were children, came forward and Shea was removed from the ministry.

Michael Strammiello, a spokesman for the Norwich Diocese, issued a written response to The Courant's request for comment Tuesday.

"We cannot comment on active litigation and risk jeopardizing the proceedings," Strammiello wrote. "Allegations of abuse from the past are always difficult for everyone involved. The church and our diocese have come a long way in preventing and assuring that these issues will not be part of our present or future."

The case was filed in Superior Court in New London on Nov. 18, but was recently transferred to federal court at the request of the defendants. Reardon said he has filed a motion to have the case moved back to state court.


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