New London priest abuse case readies for trial

Hartford — Lawyers for a New London woman say she will tell a Superior Court jury next month that the Rev. Thomas W. Shea, who is now deceased, molested her when she was 12 years old.

The now 49-year-old woman is prepared to say that Shea forced her to perform a sex act in the choir loft at St. Joseph Church in New London one day and that he also fondled and kissed her.

Her attorneys, Robert I. Reardon and Kelly E. Reardon, introduced their client, who was in court with her husband and sister, only as "Jane Doe" Wednesday as jury selection got under way in Hartford before Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr.

The woman is suing the Diocese of Norwich, Monsignor Thomas Bride and retired Bishop Daniel P. Reilly for lost earnings and medical expenses, past and future. She has undergone years of treatment and still requires care for severe depression and other psychological problems, according to her attorneys. She is seeking at least $1.1 million, according to testimony.

Reilly, who is 84 years old and lives in a church rectory in Worcester, was bishop of the Norwich diocese from 1975 to 1994. He was in court Wednesday with his attorneys, Gary C. Kaisen and Andrew T. Boivin, and was the subject of a closed-door discussion among the attorneys and judge that was not put on the record.

Reilly assigned Shea to St. Joseph Church in 1976, with orders that he be kept away from children in the parish school.

Shea, who died in 2006 at 85, was accused of molesting at least 16 girls in 11 parishes. Prior to arriving in New London, the diocese had placed Shea on a two-year sick leave prompted by complaints from parents in a Higganum church that Shea was kissing their 8- and 10-year-old daughters. Two previous bishops also had transferred Shea from parish to parish and had placed him on sick leave after receiving similar complaints.

In 1979, Reilly transferred Shea to St. John Church in Norwich, where two girls, ages 11 and 13, complained about Shea. In 1982, Reilly sent Shea to St. John the Apostle Church and The Daughters of the Holy Ghost School in Plainfield. The next year, a woman came forward who said that as a child, Shea had made her touch him inappropriately. Reilly removed Shea and sent him for treatment but never went to police.

The Norwich diocese has paid about $5 million over the past several years to people who said they were abused by priests. The parties in the Jane Doe case attempted to settled through mediation last week, but discussions ended before lunchtime, Robert Reardon said.

He expects to call to the witness stand other victims of priest abuse, many of whom he identified after receiving hundreds of pages of documents from the diocese during the discovery process.

One of the documents is an April 2005 letter that Reilly's successor, Bishop Michael Cote, wrote to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who was about to become Pope Benedict XVI.

Cote wrote that the "trail of destruction caused by Thomas W. Shea is staggering." He wrote that there were at least 15 credible cases of abuse by Shea of girls under the age of 18, including one girl who tried to kill herself three times before she turned 23.

"The psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage wrought by this man is immeasurable,'' Cote wrote. "The people who have been directly affected by his behavior as well as the entire People of God would welcome his involuntary dismissal from the clerical state."

According to Reardon, an archbishop from the Vatican responded to Cote about a month later that the church would not remove Shea from the priesthood. At the time, Shea had retired and was under orders to neither wear a collar nor say Mass.

Before jury selection began, the defendants sought to delay the trial until October so that news of the $60 million settlement by the University of Pennsylvania in the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse case would not influence the jurors. Judge Berger denied the request, saying the Penn State case has no bearing on this one.

Berger also denied Kaisen's request to delay the trial while the defendants depose several people who were added to the witness list this week. Reardon said the new witnesses are abuse victims whose names were contained in papers turned over by the diocese.

Prospective jurors in the case are filling out a questionnaire that asks whether they are victims of sexual abuse, whether they have positive or negative feelings about the church and whether they have read articles about priest sex abuse cases.

In preparing the questions, the attorneys argued for several minutes about asking the panelists, "Are you a Roman Catholic or an ex-Catholic?" They finally settled on "Are you a practicing Catholic?"

Interviewed by The Day in 2004, Shea said he was only showing affection for his parishioners, and his affection was misunderstood. He said he did not want to become one of those "evil men you read about in the newspapers."

k.florin@theday.com

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