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Diocese Says Tough Questions Necessary In Sex-Abuse Cases

Attorneys representing the Diocese of Norwich in two pending cases have changed the approach the diocese is taking to defend itself against claims of sexual abuse by priests, asking alleged victims detailed questions about their lives since childhood.

In the two most recent cases pending against the diocese, the Branford law firm of Milano and Wanat has submitted almost identical sets of written “interrogatories” to James Fish of Pawcatuck and Mary Jane Leverone of East Lyme.

The lawyers asked Fish, 47, and before that, Leverone, 48, to identify every person they've ever had a relationship with and provide details about them. The plaintiffs have also been asked to name every medical provider who has treated them, along with the conditions for which they were treated, and for details about every medication they've taken, the schools they attended, what they studied and the grades they received.

Diocese spokesman Michael Strammiello said Tuesday the diocese cannot discuss the specifics of pending litigation. He reiterated that “the discovery phase involves thorough and sometimes difficult questioning as both sides try to gather the facts. All the facts.”

The diocese wants Fish to provide information going back to when he was 6 years old and Leverone to when she was 5.

Harford attorney Joseph Sweeney, who handled most of the priest-abuse cases against the diocese up until now, did not ask such detailed questions.

Strammiello said attorneys can ask a judge to rule on whether the person has to answer the questions.

“In a true sense, the court decides the validity of the questions,” he said. “It's how the system works. Milano and Wanat is a highly respected law firm known for integrity and excellence in the practice of law. They have our full confidence.”

Sweeney said Tuesday that he could not comment on the questions being asked now because he is not familiar with the cases. He said he never asked such an extensive list of questions in the cases he handled.

Sweeney said he took a different approach, using the interrogatories to get information such as medical reports, and then used extensive depositions to draw out the information he needed to defend the diocese. For example, he said, he might question a psychiatrist who treated an alleged victim to see if the problems claimed by the person might have been caused by factors other than the alleged molestation.

Sweeney said the types of questions also depend on the types of injuries a plaintiff claims. Fish and Leverone have claimed the alleged abuse has caused them a host of physical and emotional problems throughout their lives, as well as difficulties in their jobs and relationships. Plaintiffs made similar claims in the cases handled by Sweeney.

The diocese and its insurance company have paid more than $4 million to settle lawsuits filed by people who say they were sexually abused by priests who worked in the diocese.

Fish has sued the diocese, St. Michael Church in Pawcatuck and the Rev. Paul Hebert, who Fish says molested him in 1973 when he was in seventh grade. The lawsuit states that much of the molestation took place in the church rectory. The suit charges that the diocese had been warned that Hebert posed a threat to children but ignored those warnings and allowed the abuse of Fish to continue after it became aware of it.

Leverone has sued the diocese, the late Rev. Thomas Shea and Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Gales Ferry. She claims that Shea kissed, massaged and fondled her from 1969 to 1971, when she was between 10 and 12 years old. The suit charges that the diocese ignored warnings that Shea posed a danger to children and assigned him to Our Lady of Lourdes.

Shea was accused of molesting at least 16 girls in 11 parishes in the diocese. Leverone has offered to settle the suit for $1.2 million but the diocese's insurance company will only pay $500,000. The rest would have to come from a special fund the diocese uses to pay settlements to alleged victims.

Attorneys for Fish and Leverone have said the questions border on harassment, are beyond the ability of anyone to answer, are not tailored to the claims being made and are designed to wear down the alleged victims. They have asked a judge to rule on which questions their clients have to answer.

One of the attorneys, Thomas McNamara of New Haven, has noted in his written objections that the diocese specifically asked both Fish and Leverone to identify any gynecologists they have seen, even though Fish is a man.

He also wrote that a request by the diocese that Fish list all his sexual partners “continues to violate his personal boundaries, which were heinously violated by Father Paul Hebert in 1973.”

David Clohessy, the national director of The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), has said the diocese's questioning is common in priest-abuse cases across the country and is designed to discourage other victims from coming forward.

Gary Kaisen, the attorney handling the Fish case for the diocese, said Tuesday that it is not his policy to comment on ongoing cases. Another attorney in the firm, Anthony Saraco, has said in court documents that because Leverone is making “seemingly boundless” claims of psychiatric damage, the diocese is entitled to ask the questions to properly defend itself, especially since it appears she suffered from psychological conditions before the alleged assault.
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