A Sudden Spotlight on the Church

By Brian J. Scheid
New York Times
March 24, 2002

In Fairfield County and throughout much of the country, leaders of the Catholic Church, compelled by a recent scandal that began in the Boston Archdiocese, have redefined their policies on sexual abuse and, in some cases, made the names of clergy accused of sexual abuse public for the first time.

In the Diocese of Bridgeport, Bishop William E. Lori said he would review the files of all 285 priests and 86 deacons in the diocese to ensure that no clergy pose a threat to children. Bishop Lori, who celebrated his first year as Bridgeport's bishop last week, said he would also create an advisory board of psychologists, physicians and legal experts to deal with sexual misconduct in the clergy.

Joseph McAleer, spokesman for the Bridgeport diocese, refused to comment on an article in The Hartford Courant last week that was based on sealed court documents. That article said that Cardinal Edward M. Egan, former leader of Bridgeport's 363,000 Catholics and now head of the New York Archdiocese, had covered up abuse by clergy and allowed priests to continue to work after allegations of abuse had surfaced.

But, Mr. McAleer said the diocese has had a sexual misconduct policy in place since January 1991, which Cardinal Egan helped institute, and said it was effective.

"It's a good policy, it's a policy that works, it's a policy that we believe in," Mr. McAleer said.

In April 1990 the Archdiocese of Hartford adopted a similar "zero tolerance" policy that requires priests to report to the diocese any allegations of sexual abuse involving priests and other church employees. But, the Rev. John Gatzak, director of communications for the archdiocese, said Bishop Daniel A. Cronin, head of the Hartford archdiocese and its nearly 757,000 Roman Catholics, had no plans to review the records of his 416 priests and 333 deacons.

At this time, he is "not going to be reviewing the files because he knows what's there," Father Gatzak said.

In the Diocese of Norwich, Bishop Daniel A. Hart, the head of the diocese and its 214,000 Catholics, has written two pastoral letters since Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston turned over the names of more than 80 priests accused of sexual abuse. In those letters, Bishop Hart apologized for sexual abuse by the clergy.

Bishop Hart, who served as auxiliary bishop in the Boston Archdiocese before coming to Norwich in November 1995, has said the diocese's policy on sexual abuse is adequate. That policy, established in 1991, requires all accusations of sexual abuse made against an employee of the diocese be reported to law enforcement officials and the State Department of Children and Families.

Bishop Hart would not say how many complaints of sexual abuse the diocese has received, and turned over, since 1991 and said that he did not know how many complaints there were before 1991 or how those complaints were handled.

The bishop would not comment on whether he would be reviewing church files or if he planned on turning the names of clergy members accused of sexual abuse before 1991 over to authorities.

"I have no statement to make about that at this time," Bishop Hart said.

His silence has angered two Windham County men, whose eldest brother committed suicide in 1991, years after, according to court documents, he was sexually assaulted by a priest in Putnam. They want the diocese to make public the names of all priests in its jurisdiction who have been accused of sexual abuse.

"Hart could be a hero and step up and do something," said John Deary of Pomfret. "I don't know why he won't."

Without full public disclosure of sexual assault accusations made against priests, the brothers said there is no way of knowing how many incidents there have been.

"The further you dig, the more cases there are," said Gene Michael Deary of Brooklyn. "In a couple of weeks in Boston, we've seen hundreds of complaints we never knew existed. Who knows how many more there could be here?"

The Norwich diocese has been a defendant in at least four cases of clergy sexual abuse, court records in two Connecticut and one New Mexico court show.

The most recent, filed in June 2000 in Norwich Superior Court, names Bishop Hart in a suit against Richard T. Buongirno, a former priest of the diocese who served until 1999 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Middletown. In June 1999, Mr. Buongirno was arrested by the State Police on charges that he sexually abused a 9-year-old boy while he was the pastor of St. Matthias Church in East Lyme.

Mr. Buongirno, who has pleaded not guilty, resigned as a priest shortly after his arrest. According to papers filed by Joseph Sweeney, the lawyer representing Mr. Buongirno and the diocese, Mr. Buongirno served in Cromwell and Middletown parishes for more than four years after he admitted to Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, head of the diocese at the time, that he had molested a high school student in the early 1970's, a decade before he entered the priesthood. Mr. Sweeney said Mr. Buongirno has admitted to the high school charges, but denied he molested the 9-year-old in East Lyme. The trial is scheduled to resume on April 2 at Norwich Superior Court.

In May, 1999 a lawsuit was filed in Middletown against the Rev. Raymond Jean, who was last assigned in 1984 to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Gales Ferry, the year he was defrocked. The suit says that Mr. Jean, who died last year, committed numerous acts of sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation on a child from the ages of 9 to 13, beginning in 1973 while he served at the Notre Dame Church in Durham.

That case is partially sealed and still pending. Mr. Sweeney said that a judge in an earlier lawsuit, filed by the same man, against the diocese over Mr. Jean had ruled that the diocese was not responsible for his actions and dismissed the suit.

In 1995, Matthew J. Nutt and Mark D. Nutt, twin brothers, filed a lawsuit in United States District Court in Hartford against the diocese claiming they were repeatedly sexually abused by their parish priest, the Rev. Thomas J. Doyle, while he served at St. Bernard's Parish Church in the Tolland County town of Rockville in the late 1970's. According to the lawsuit, the brothers reported the abuse to the superiors of Mr. Doyle, who was then transferred to another church in the diocese. He was eventually defrocked in 1992. The lawsuit also says that state authorities were never notified. While the judges said the boys were indeed molested, they dismissed the suit because they said the diocese was not responsible. Attempts to reach Mr. Doyle were unsuccessful.

The case of Rev. Bernard W. Bissonnette, who served in several Norwich diocese parishes in the 1950's and 1960's, is an example of what critics of the church said was all too common: the transferring of priests repeatedly accused of sexual abuse. The accusations against Mr. Bissonnette reach all the way to New Mexico.

In December 1998, a New Mexico Court of Appeals found that the Diocese of Norwich could be sued for damages by a New Mexico man who said he was sexually abused by Mr. Bissonnette between 1966 and 1968. He had been transferred to a parish in New Mexico in 1966, but remained on the payroll of the Norwich disocese. He is no longer a priest.

Court documents, provided by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M., say that Mr. Bissonnette was the priest who molested Thomas Deary.

The court in New Mexico found that the Norwich diocese was subject to the jurisdiction of the state's courts in Mr. Bissonnette's case.

The diocese appealed the decision in December 1998 and the case is pending before the New Mexico Supreme Court.

In 1991 the Dearys worked with the newly formed Pastoral Care Committee, the group that set up the diocese's "zero tolerance" policy of sexual abuse complaints. That year, following a long bout with mental illness and two failed marriages, Thomas Deary III killed himself. He was 44.

"It was pretty clear why Tommy wanted to go to heaven," Gene Deary said. "He believed he'd be more peaceful there than he was here."

The Norwich diocese would not comment on Mr. Bissonnette, known as "Father Barney" to the altar boys who served Mass for him at St. Mary's Church in Putnam in the early 1960's. He has been accused of molesting and raping scores of young boys across the country, according to a file maintained by the Rev. Ron Wolf, the former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M., and submitted to the court in New Mexico.

According to court documents, in 1958 at the age of 26, Mr. Bissonnette, a North Grosvenordale native, was first assigned as an assistant priest in Christ the King Parish in Old Lyme, but stayed there less than one year. He was transferred to St. Michael's Church in Pawcatuck, but remained in that assignment for only three months after there were allegations of sexual abuse in that parish.

Mr. Bissonnette was transferred to All Hollows Parish in the Moosup section of Plainfield, but was transferred to St. Mary's Church in Putnam in June 1962 after parishioners complained of "familiarities" with boys, the doucuments say.

It was there that Thomas Deary, then 13, was molested, the documents say. Gene and John Deary said that in April 1963, after their brother returned from a fishing trip with Mr. Bissonnette, during which the priest later admitted the two engaged in mutual masturbation, according to court documents, Thomas told his father he had been molested that day and raped several times earlier.

The documents say that his father reported this to a St. Mary's monsignor, and that Mr. Bissonnette was transferred to the Servants of the Paraclete, a monastic order in Jemez Springs, N.M., which operated the Via Coeli retreat center that specialized in treating pedophilia priests.

"Only now do we know what a mistake not going to the police right away was," Gene Deary said.

Ultimately, Mr. Bissonnette was transferred to nine parishes throughout New Mexico, Michigan and Minnesota in the 30 years after he left St. Mary's in Putnam. At each of these parishes, he left or was force out after he was accused of sexually molesting one or more children, the documents say.

Mr. Bissonnette could not be located.

Gene Deary was scheduled to meet with Bishop Hart for the first time Friday and ask the bishop to turn Mr. Bissonnette over to Connecticut and New Mexico state police and to their states' attorneys offices, even though the statute of limitations has passed.

Mr. Deary, who has taken no legal action against Mr. Bissonnette, said he hoped that some day the statute of limitations is extended. Bishop Hart refused to comment on the meeting.

"If he is willing to turn over Bissonnette's name, which I'm not sure he's willing to do, then we'll set a precedent and we'll open the floodgates for all the names to be released," Mr. Deary said.


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