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New London - A woman who says the late Catholic priest Rev. Thomas Shea sexually abused her when she was a girl is trying to force the Diocese of Norwich to release 661 pages of documents - including a 2005 letter about Shea that current Bishop Michael Cote sent to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.
Diocesan attorneys are fighting an attempt by New London attorney Robert Reardon to force the release of the documents. Reardon has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the woman, who says she was sexually assaulted as a 12-year-old parishioner at St. Joseph's Church in New London.
Among the documents Reardon is seeking are reports, notes and letters about Shea from church officials, the doctors and psychiatrists who treated him and parishioners who complained about him.
It is unknown what is in the April 8, 2005, letter Cote sent to Ratzinger, except that a document log shows it concerned "canonical process." The church holds canonical trials, which can lead to a priest being defrocked.
The revelation of the Ratzinger letter comes as the pope faces recent accusations that he had information about the sexual abuse of deaf children by a Wisconsin priest when he headed the Vatican office that decides whether priests should face canonical trials. As in Shea's case, no trial took place in the Wisconsin case.
The pope has also been accused of approving the transfer of an abusive priest while he was the Archbishop of Munich. Church officials defended him, saying subordinates handled both issues.
"I'm not as surprised (of the pope's knowledge of Shea) as I would have been a few years ago. The facts have come out that the Holy See and Cardinal Ratzinger had a lot more involvement in these cases than people realize," Reardon said.
The diocese, which has released 405 pages of documents about Shea to Reardon, has argued that the Ratzinger letter is among 661 pages that it does not have to release because they are privileged communications not subject to disclosure. The log does not show a return letter from Ratzinger.
In its log of these documents, the diocese has listed not only the date, author, recipient and a brief description about each one, but reasons why each should not be released as well.
For the Ratzinger letter, it says the communication is privileged because it is an attorney work product, is material prepared in anticipation of litigation and is protected by the First Amendment and the Connecticut Constitution.
Reardon, though, says he needs the documents to show not only that Shea abused his client but that the diocese and St. Joseph's Church engaged in a conspiracy to protect sexually-abusive priests, not report them to police and transfer them to other churches where parishioners did not know about previous allegations.
"Father Shea was a problem for a very long time and these documents indicate that," Reardon said.
Reardon, who has won millions of dollars in damages for past clients found to have been abused by diocesan priests, has asked a Hartford Superior Court judge to review all the documents in the case to see which ones should be released. The diocese can object and a hearing would then be held.
Reardon pointed out Thursday that other courts have ordered other dioceses to release such documents. He added that the documents the diocese has given him portray Shea in a favorable light even though he had a long history of allegedly molesting a large number of girls in numerous parishes.
Diocesan spokesman Michael Strammiello could not be reached to comment Thursday.
Shea was accused of molesting at least 16 girls in 11 parishes in the diocese. Bishops frequently moved him from one church to another after parents complained about his behavior, which often involved kissing and fondling young girls. The bishops never reported Shea to police.
Shea was ordained in 1946 and sent to his first assignment, a Catholic girls' summer camp in New Hartford. Over the next four decades, he served in churches in New London, Norwich, Mystic, Groton, Gales Ferry, Montville and Plainfield, among other towns.
When former Bishop Daniel Reilly transferred Shea to St. Joseph's Church in 1976, it was with orders that Shea be kept away from children in the parish school. Girls at St. Joseph's said Shea liked to take photos of them in their bathing suits. Shea kept scrapbooks of the girls he took photos of over the years.
The woman, who is now 46 and still lives in the area, has also sued Reilly and Monsignor Thomas Bride in addition to the diocese and St. Joseph's Church. Her suit charges that she met Shea in 1976 and on various occasions he kissed, fondled and sexually assaulted her. The suit further charges Reilly allowed Shea to use the girl as a sex object.
The suit states the woman, referred to as Jane Doe in court documents, suffered physical and emotional injuries and still requires treatment for severe depression and other psychological problems.
Reardon said she came to his office after reading a story about another client of his who had been molested by another diocesan priest.
"She had known (Reardon's other client) when she was a child and he gave her the courage to come forward," Reardon said.
Reilly removed Shea from the ministry in 1983 and sent him for treatment after an adult woman said Shea forced her to perform a sexual act on him when she was a young girl.
In 2008, the diocese settled a lawsuit by a woman who said Shea repeatedly sexually assaulted her at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Gales Ferry, beginning when she was 10 years old. Those incidents occurred between 1969 and 1971.
In a 2004 interview with The Day, Shea said, "I would show what I considered a reasonable affection by whatever norms I had to work with," he says. "I would just give them a simple kiss."
But he denied fondling the girls.
"There are things that I wish I hadn't done. The fact is that there are some of these things that they ought to have taught us in the seminary but didn't teach us," he said.
Reardon has offered to settle the case with all four defendants for $1.5 million. If the diocese refuses the offer, state law would require it to pay 8 percent interest on top of any jury award that is more than the $1.5 million. Interest would accrue from the date the suit was filed.