Documents, Including Letter to Ratzinger, Sought in Priest Sex Abuse Lawsuit

By Dave Altimari
Hartford Courant
May 18, 2010,0,1160337.story

Attorneys for the Diocese of Norwich are trying to keep secret hundreds of documents including a letter written to the pope when he was a cardinal that discussed the status of a priest accused of molesting more than a dozen young girls.

The letter from Bishop Michael Cote to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in April 2005 concerned "canonical processes" regarding Thomas W. Shea, a retired priest accused of molesting as many as 16 girls at 11 different parishes during a nearly 40-year career, according to court records.

The letter is one of more than 600 documents that the diocese is trying to keep secret in a lawsuit pending in Superior Court in Hartford that alleges that Shea sexually molested a 12-year-old girl, identified as Jane Doe, while he was at St. Joseph's Church in New London in 1976.

The list of documents is included in a motion filed by New London Attorney Robert Reardon, who is representing Jane Doe. Reardon wants Judge Mitchell K. Berger to look at all the documents, including the letter to the pope, to see if they should be turned over to him.

Court records do not show whether Ratzinger ever responded to Cote's concerns. Shea died in 2006 in a West Hartford nursing home, still a priest in good standing.

Diocese of Norwich spokesman Michael Strammiello said Monday that he had "no idea" what the bishop could have written in a note that is now 5 years old.

"This is a confidential matter and it will have to be addressed in court," Strammiello said.

As a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI headed the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which is the office that decides whether accused priests should get church trials called canonical trials that could eventually lead to their being defrocked. He was in that post from 1981 to 2005.

The pope has come under criticism recently for a similar case in Wisconsin, in which a bishop there sent him a letter seeking to have a priest accused of molesting deaf children defrocked. But a church trial never occurred after the accused priest wrote a letter to Ratzinger asking him not to go forward with the trial.

The documents in Wisconsin were unsealed by a judge despite efforts by the diocese there to keep them secret.

Doe was 12-years-old when she first met Shea, who was a priest at St. Joseph's Church in New London in 1976, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that Shea identified her as a child in need of help so he started paying attention to her and "conditioned her to comply with his directions."

"Father Shea sexually assaulted and battered the plaintiff by kissing her on the lips, touching and fondling her and committing other acts of sexual assault," the lawsuit said.

In court Monday on other legal issues regarding the case, Reardon said the abuse went much farther and that Shea forced her to perform oral sex on him.

Reardon said Shea gained the trust of the 12-year-old girl who just followed his instructions when he told her to "provide the Father with oral sex because he's had a tough day."

The lawsuit claims that church officials were well aware of Shea's behavior but assigned him to St. Joseph's anyway. Shea had been on a "sick leave" from 1973 to 1975 before he was placed at St. Joseph's, records show.

Shea was ordained a priest in 1946 and served in several parishes throughout the diocese, mostly in the New London area. Shea admitted as far back as 1953 that he had kissed a girl from his parish and taken photos of her in a bathing suit, according to court records.

The lawsuit alleges that the Diocese of Norwich concealed the results of an internal investigation that determined that Shea had fondled other young girls and had been sent for treatment. By keeping it secret, the diocese "allowed Shea to continue using her as a sex object" the lawsuit alleges.

As part of the initial discovery, Reardon subpoenaed Shea's personnel records. The diocese's attorneys turned over 405 pages from Shea's file, but refused to turn over 661 pages that they claim are "privileged."

Besides the letter to the pope, other documents that the church is trying to keep sealed include letters from St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, memos concerning Thomas Shea's treatment in the mid-1980s and evidence that the church received complaints about Shea's inappropriate behavior as far back as 1965. St. Luke's Institute was a place that church officials sent priests accused of sexual misconduct for treatment.

Church records show that Shea was transferred all over the diocese and put on sick leave at least twice after complaints from parishioners about inappropriate behavior with young girls.

Reardon is using the church's actions in the Shea case to try an unusual legal tactic alleging that the church, the bishops and other church leaders were in effect running a racketeering enterprise by concealing crimes from civil authorities.

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