Judgment in Sex Case Involving Priest Overturned

By Gerald Renner
Hartford Courant
November 12, 1999

A federal appeals court has overturned a million-dollar judgment in the case of a man who accused a Roman Catholic priest of sexually assaulting him as a teenager in a Stamford parish.

The case involved Frank Martinelli, now 52, of Milwaukee, who claimed that the Diocese of Bridgeport covered up sexual misconduct by the Rev. Laurence F.X. Brett in the 1960s. A jury in New Haven found in his favor in August 1997.

But a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York has found that the trial judge erred in two of her instructions to the jury, and has ordered a new trial.

The reversal, handed down late Wednesday afternoon, hinged on the statute of limitations. The circuit court said U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton erred in failing to instruct the jury that Martinelli had the burden to prove that he repressed memories of having been abused in 1962, 1963 and 1964.

Under Connecticut law, which applied in this case in federal court, a minor who was molested ordinarily must take legal action before he or she is 35 years old. An exception may be made if "fraudulent concealment" can be shown.

Martinelli was 46 when he sued the diocese. He testified that he never gave much thought to what happened to him until October 1991. That is when a high school classmate reminded him of their having been sexually abused by Brett in Stamford, reviving traumatic memories, he said.

The jurors found that the diocese fraudulently concealed evidence that Brett had been abusing teenage boys in the early 1960s.

The judge's second error, the circuit court said, was in telling the jury that to be culpable, it was unnecessary for the diocese to have been aware that Martinelli was one of those boys. The jury decided the diocese was culpable by failing to search out and help Martinelli and other victims.

The jury awarded Martinelli $750,000, and the judge fixed punitive damages at $250,000. The circuit court reversal overturns that money award.

In a war of words, both sides are claiming victory.

"Obviously we would rather go home and cash the check, but they are absolutely clobbered on the points of law," said William Laviano, Martinelli's lawyer.

He said they would have no trouble in proving their case either in a new trial based narrowly on the two issues raised by the appeals court or in a broader re-trial.

He said the court rejected the diocese's arguments that the First Amendment protected it or that it had no "fiduciary" responsibility -- or special relationship with its parishioners -- to seek out abuse victims.

Tom Drohan, spokesman for the diocese, said: "The reality is the court has overturned the ruling. There is no reason to believe that at this time there will be any checks cut for the plaintiff."

Martinelli, reached by telephone at his home in Milwaukee Thursday, said he was not disappointed inasmuch as the court found the law was on his side but overturned the verdict on "two technicalities."

Money, he said, "was never the reason for taking action in the first place. It was really about doing something to raise the issue and to hold people accountable for what they should have done, even if it was that long ago."







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