Saturday, January 03, 2009

Norwich diocese accused of racketeering in sex-abuse case

New London attorney Robert I. Reardon has sued the Catholic church several times for allegedly covering up priests' molestation of children, but now he is accusing the church of racketeering and “a widespread conspiracy.”

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of a southeastern Connecticut woman referred to only as “Jane M. Doe,” Reardon alleges that the Catholic Diocese of Norwich, St. Joseph's Church of New London, former Bishop Daniel P. Reilly and Msgr. Thomas Bride conspired to cover up incidences of priest molestation, particularly those involving the late Rev. Thomas W. Shea and then 13-year-old Jane Doe.

Shea was accused of molesting 16 girls in the 11 parishes in which he served in the Norwich diocese.

Reardon filed the suit in November under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

”A lot of people think RICO is only reserved for gangsters,” Reardon said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It's not. It has to do with a widespread conspiracy. We think the conduct of the diocese of Norwich, particularly with respect to its treatment of Shea, is consistent with the criteria for a RICO claim.”

Reardon said similar claims have been made against Catholic organizations in California, New York and Minnesota, but not in Connecticut. The Jane Doe lawsuit also includes the usual claims of negligence, recklessness and other wrongdoings.

The lawsuit claims that in 1976, while Shea was serving at St. Joseph Church in New London, he “battered the plaintiff by kissing her on the lips, touching and fondling her and committing other similar acts.”

Reardon said his firm has never brought a claim involving Shea in the past and that, as far as he knows, Jane Doe has never been involved in a priest-related lawsuit.

”We just took a look at the facts and said that this is a classic example of someone who was repeatedly transferred rather than informing the parishioners,” he said, referring to Shea.

The lawsuit also alleges that the church successfully concealed allegations of child sex abuse for more than 25 years, maintained confidential files on sex assault claims without informing parishioners and took part in a national scheme to conspire and defraud and conceal the molestation of minors.

Reardon filed the lawsuit in New London Superior Court but it was transferred to federal court at the request of the dioceses' attorneys. Reardon said racketeering lawsuits can be heard in state court and that he has filed an objection to the case being removed.

The Norwich diocese has paid about $5 million over the past few years to people who said they were abused by priests. Earlier this month, it settled another lawsuit with a woman who said Shea sexually assaulted her, beginning when she was 10 years old, while he served as a priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Gales Ferry.

Michael Strammiello, director of communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, said that in the past six years the church has progressed a long way when it comes to child safety and is now in a leadership position in terms of developing, enforcing and auditing programs. Many other institutions, including public schools, are only now starting to grapple with these issues, he said.

”The Catholic Church has confronted this head-on and has done a remarkable job of what I like to call 'never again' practices,” Strammiello said.

Nationally, more than 1.8 million clergy, employees and volunteers have been trained to prevent child sexual abuse, he said. Close to six million children have been “prepared to recognize and report improper behavior by an adult.” Criminal checks have been performed on more than 1.5 million employees, 1.5 million educators and more than 50,000 clerics and candidates for the priesthood.

The Norwich diocese is in full compliance with the programs, which are being audited by former FBI agents, Strammiello said.
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(Source: TDC)

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