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Parishes in the Diocese of Norwich considering bankruptcy protection

The 51 parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich have hired two attorneys in an effort to join the diocese in seeking bankruptcy protection from sexual abuse claims against priests and other employees.

The Rev. Ted Tumicki, the spokesman for the committee of parishes, explained Tuesday that the parishes agreed that hiring the attorneys was the correct thing to do because legally binding decisions are being made in the ongoing bankruptcy  process that directly impact the parishes. Tumicki, the pastor of the three churches that comprise the Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Jewett City, added it also makes sense from a financial and procedural sense for the parishes to have one legal representative and share the cost instead of each hiring their own lawyer.

The committee has hired attorneys Mark Mintz of New Orleans, La., and Jeffrey Hellman of New Haven.

In the past, people who have sued the diocese, after they say they were sexually assaulted by diocesan priests, also have named the parish where the abuse took place in their lawsuits. The diocese and its insurance company, however, would fund the settlements paid to the victims, which averaged about $1 million each, and paid the legal fees. The total amount of settlements paid out to the victims is unknown, but known settlements total about $9.5 million.

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.

The bankruptcy process, which freezes current lawsuits against the diocese, will determine the assets of the diocese and how much each victim will receive in damages. It also will bar any additional sexual abuse victims from suing the diocese in the future for any incident that occurred before July 15, 2021.

The parishes are separate corporations from the diocese, which means if someone under the age of 51 — the current statute of limitations — wants to file a lawsuit alleging they were sexually assaulted by a priest or other church employee, they would likely file a lawsuit against the parish or school where the abuse allegedly occurred. The parish, church or school then would be responsible for paying any damages. With the General Assembly expected to again consider and possibly approve a bill this winter that would create a window of opportunity in which victims of any age could file a suit, there could be more victims suing the parishes in the future. 

In order to join the bankruptcy through a channel injunction, each parish would have to make a contribution to the funds that will be distributed to the group of victims as part of the bankruptcy settlement. This means that each parish has to weigh that payment against the possibility of facing new lawsuits that could be even more costly.

The amount of the parish payments would not be determined until later in the bankruptcy process, but Tumicki said the idea is to have the parishes as a group be responsible for contributing a sum of money and then decide how to divide it up among the parishes. Each parish would pay a different amount.

"That will be a challenge for us," Tumicki acknowledged, adding the pastors will have to work together on the issue.

In a letter he circulated to his parishioners this past weekend at St. Mary, St. Catherine and Saints Thomas and Anne parishes, Tumicki wrote that, without taking this step, once the diocese bankruptcy is finalized, the individual parishes would no longer have the legal and financial protection of the diocese and thus would be responsible for all legal cost and financial settlements. In addition, he wrote, insurance coverage would provide very little money because payouts would have been exhausted from the bankruptcy settlement.

He concluded by saying that "First of all, please pray for the victims and survivors of sexual abuse and for their families. Secondly, please pray for our parishes and all of our parish families. None of us — victims, survivors, families, parishioners — wanted to go down this road. We were forced down this road and that is where we are now. The solution is not ideal, but there are no other viable options."

Tumicki said the other members of the parish committee are the Rev. Dennis Perkins, pastor of the Holy Cross Community, which includes St. Michael Church in Pawcatuck, St. Mary Church in Stonington Borough and St. Thomas More Church in North Stonington, and the Rev. Larry LaPointe, pastor of the Corpus Christi parish, which comprises three churches in Willimantic and Windham.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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