Panel finds probable cause that R.I. Supreme Court justice violated state ethics code

By Katie Mulvaney
Providence Journal
April 25, 2017

[with video]

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The state Ethics Commission voted 5-2 Tuesday that there was probable cause to find that Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty violated the state ethics code by failing to disclose his leadership position in a Catholic nonprofit organization.

Helen L. Hyde, of Brookfield, Connecticut, in September filed a complaint faulting Flaherty for not indicating on his financial disclosure statements from 2010 to 2015 that he served as president of the St. Thomas More Society of Rhode Island. The nonprofit society’s stated mission is to “promote the study by Catholic lawyers of the application of Christian principles to modern problems, especially in so far as they are connected with civil or ecclesiastical law,” according to the complaint.

“The omission is not a neglectful oversight, but rather occurred five successive years in a row,” Hyde wrote, referring to the nondisclosure as “knowing and willful.”

Hyde, a former Rhode Island resident, alleges that Flaherty held that role while presiding over her appeal before the state Supreme Court. She and a man who alleged that a Roman Catholic priest sexually abused them more than four decades ago sought to recover damages from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence. Flaherty wrote the decision denying Hyde and Jeffrey Thomas damages.

According to the investigative report prepared for the commission, Faith A. LaSalle, secretary for the society, told an investigator that Flaherty had served as its president until his recent resignation, later determined to be Dec. 20.

The society sponsors an annual Red Mass, celebrated at dioceses across the nation to mark the opening of the judicial term. Lawyers, government officials and judges in Rhode Island proceed into the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in red vestments to signify the Holy Spirit’s guidance to all who pursue justice in their daily lives.

The commission found that Flaherty had failed to list his position as president of the society on financial disclosure statements for 2010 to 2015, as is required of all appointed and elected state officials, and state employees holding major decision-making roles.

The commission members voting there was probable cause warranting a full investigation were Timothy Murphy, Marisa Quinn, Ross Cheit, Robert Salk and Douglas Bennett. Those voting against were Mark Heffner and M. Therese Antone.

Marc DeSisto, who represented Flaherty, declined comment. But he argued in a motion to dismiss the complaint that if there was a violation it was reasonable and in good faith. He described the society as a “loosely organized committee” whose main purpose is to hold the Red Mass.

Staff attorney Jason Gramitt said the commission’s vote indicates that the commission has found enough evidence of a potential violation to require a a full evidentiary hearing — in essence a public trial in which both sides would present evidence. The commission would then vote to determine if a violation had occurred. If yes, the commission would consider possible penalties.

Hyde and Thomas separately sued the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence in 2008, alleging they were molested by the late Rev. Brendan Smyth, who served as visiting priest, counselor and teacher at Our Lady of Mercy School and Church in East Greenwich for three years. Theirs were cases of recovered memory, as both were between 6 and 9 years old at the time of the alleged abuse.

Hyde alleged that the bishop, and predecessors, “knew that Smyth was a pedophile by the late 1940s, but that they nonetheless continued to allow him to serve as a priest.”

Smyth became notorious after he was convicted of 141 indecent assaults against children across his native Ireland over four decades. He died in 1997 in prison.


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