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Catholic priest abuse victims and their supporters rally at Norwich cathedral

Norwich — Members of the state chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP,  as well as those who say they are victims of sexual abuse by priests including clergy from the Diocese of Norwich, rallied in front of St. Patrick Cathedral on Thursday.

The group, which was joined by Kathryn Robb, executive director of ChildUSAdvocacy, and Lucy Nolan, policy director of the CT Alliance Against Sexual Violence, criticized the estimated $2.7 million in legal and financial services fees the Catholic diocese has accumulated thus far in its ongoing bankruptcy case. They demanded the diocese publicize the value of its real estate holdings before its bankruptcy plan is approved in federal court. They also called on the General Assembly in its upcoming session to eliminate the statute of limitations on the filing of lawsuits by those who were sexually assaulted as minors, an effort that has been unsuccessful in the past.

Referencing the criticism of the legal and financial services spent so far by the diocese by federal bankruptcy Judge James Tancredi and the committee representing the victims, SNAP CT co-leader Gail Howard said it appears the "church values its own welfare over the welfare of the survivors."

Victims and their supporters have said that money the diocese is spending on legal and financial services fees means there will be less money to distribute to the more than 70 people who have filed sexual assault claims against the diocese. More are expected to file after the bankruptcy process and the deadline for filing claims is officially advertised.

"We demand fairness for the survivors," Howard said.

She said the group also is concerned about the lack of details on how much the diocese's properties are worth. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the diocese's 51 parishes, which are separate corporations from the diocese, have agreed to consider joining the bankruptcy to seek protection from future lawsuits. To do that, the parishes will have to contribute money to the bankruptcy fund, which means the value of their properties and assets have to be determined as well as their contribution. When a bankruptcy plan is approved for the diocese and parishes, victims would not be able to sue those entities for incidents that occurred before July 15, 2021.

"We demand that the church put out the value of their real estate now, not at the end of the process," Howard said. "First the church conceals the abuse and now it is concealing its wealth."

In its bankruptcy filings, the diocese lists 14 properties its owns but states their value is undetermined. These include Saint Bernard High School in Montville, Mercy and Xavier high schools in Middletown, as well as the chancery and bishop's residence in Norwich. The Cathedral of St. Patrick in Norwich is not listed as an asset.

The current statute of limitations for filing a sexual abuse lawsuit is 51. The General Assembly is expected to again consider and possibly approve a bill next year that would create a window of opportunity in which victims of any age could file a suit. The effort has been unsuccessful in the past, and the church has lobbied against it. Other states, such as New York, have approved such a window to file lawsuits. If that occurs here, the parishes could be left facing expensive lawsuits without the protection and financial support of the diocese, which is why they are considering joining the bankruptcy.

Howard said the taxpayers of Connecticut continue  to pay for the cost of priest abuse instead of the state's Catholic dioceses. This is because many victims are unable to work or they struggle to stay employed, need Medicare or Medicaid coverage to pay bills for mental health, substance abuse treatment or other services or end up in prison, all programs funded by taxpayers.

"These are all costs the entire Connecticut citizenry pays. Shouldn't the organization that caused the damages pay for the damages?" she asked.  

This past July, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the face of more than 60 young men filing lawsuits in which they charge they were raped and sexually assaulted as boys by Christian Brothers and other staff at the diocese-run Mount Saint John Academy in Deep River from 1990 to 2002. Since then, additional people whose sexual assault allegations involve not only Mount Saint John but diocesan churches have filed claims.

j.wojtas@theday.com 

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