St. Bernard School to be sold to fund Norwich Diocese bankruptcy
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich plans to sell St. Bernard School in Montville and the 113 acres of land it sits on to help fund its proposed bankruptcy plan.
The diocese and school officials said Wednesday that they hope to be able to lease back the land ― which has been appraised by the Town of Montville at $21 million ― from the unidentified buyer, so the 67-year-old Catholic school can continue to operate. It serves 400 students from across the region in grades 6-12.
“Despite this concerning news, we are committed to the preservation of Saint Bernard School, and its profound, educational, social, and spiritual impact upon eastern Connecticut,” Head of School Don Macrino wrote in a letter to alumni and donors on Tuesday. “To that end, when we learn more about the unknown buyer, we will arrange to meet with them. Our goal will be twofold: first, to convince the buyer of the school’s importance to eastern Connecticut and second, to seek a lease that will allow the school to continue its mission for many years to come.”
The diocese filed a bankruptcy plan late Tuesday in federal court that calls for approximately $29 million to be distributed to as many as 142 people who allege they have been sexually assaulted by priests and other diocesan employees.
The plan means the victims will receive an average settlement of $204,000, which is a fraction of the approximately $1 million award the diocese had paid victims before it filed for bankruptcy protection in July 2021. Because of the filing by the diocese ― which was later joined by its 51 parishes in seeking bankruptcy protection ― victims are prohibited from filing lawsuits against them and current lawsuits cannot proceed.
The diocese filed for bankruptcy as it faced more than 60 lawsuits filed by men who say they were sexually assaulted as boys by Christian Brothers, staff and students at the diocese-run Mount Saint John Academy, a residential school for troubled boys in Deep River, from 1990 to 2002.
Christian Brother K. Paul McGlade is accused of sexually assaulting many of the boys at Mount Saint John. Former Bishop of Norwich Daniel Reilly, now retired, served as the president of the school's board of trustees during the period of the alleged assaults by McGlade. Reilly has never commented publicly on the allegations.
Since the bankruptcy filing, 82 additional people, whose sexual assault allegations involved not only the school, but diocesan churches, have filed claims in the bankruptcy case.
Since the diocese filed for bankruptcy, it has negotiated with its insurance company, parishes, the committee representing victims and creditors and other entities to create a fund to compensate the victims. There have been more than 1,000 court filings in the case and the diocese has spent more than $5 million in legal and other fees.
When it filed for bankruptcy, the diocese estimated its assets at between $10 million and $50 million, and its liabilities between $50 million and $100 million.
In a statement Wednesday, the diocese wrote that a trustee and an independent claims reviewer, and not the diocese, would determine which victims are eligible for compensation and how much they will receive. The diocese’s statement did not indicate if any of the 142 victims, who filed claims but are too old under state law to file lawsuits, will receive payments.
In addition, the diocese said it will ask the survivors and creditors to vote on approval of the plan.
The diocese said that it has maintained a zero-tolerance policy regarding child abuse since the enactment of its first Sexual Misconduct Policy in 1990 and the implementation of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002.
But an investigation by The Day found that during his time as bishop of Norwich, which ended in 1994, Reilly transferred priests accused of sexual assault, made payments to victims and did not report allegations to police.
Records in the McGlade case show the Norwich diocese requested to have McGlade transferred to the Deep River school from Australia, where he also had been accused of sexually assaulting young boys. The diocese has never explained why it sought the transfer.
“There is no higher priority within the Diocese than the protection and spiritual welfare of our young. The Diocese of Norwich continues our longstanding commitment to the support and healing of victim-survivors of abuse and reaffirms our commitment to protect our children, young people, and vulnerable adults from harm,” the diocese said in its statement Wednesday.
Details to come on bankruptcy plan
While the diocese filed a 80-page plan in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New Haven, it has yet to file exhibits online that detail items such as which of the 14 properties it has listed as assets it will sell, who the trustee will be and how much each parish has contributed to the settlement.
The diocese owns two other high schools, Xavier High School and Mercy High School in Middletown. The plan states that Xavier will be sold with proceeds contributed to the victims’ fund. An additional $7 million will come from Christian Brothers Oceania organization, $5 million from Catholic Mutual, the diocese’s insurer, $5.3 million from the sale, mortgage and a cash contribution from Mount Saint John, $2.5 million from the 51 parishes in the diocese and the proceeds of the sale of the former St. Mary School building in Jewett City.
New London attorney Kelly Reardon, who represents 25 of the victims, said Wednesday that there are sections of the plan that are concerning to her, but until she can review the exhibits it is difficult for her to comment on the plan. Reardon pointed out that the proposed plan has to be agreed to by the involved parties.
Bridgeport attorney Eric Henzy, whose firm is representing the committee of victims and creditors, said Wednesday that he had not yet had a chance to review the diocese’s proposal so he could not comment on it.
St. Bernard’s long history in the region
Generations of southeastern Connecticut students, many from the same families have attended the school off Route 32 in the Uncasville section of town.
Macrino, the head of the school, said Wednesday that the sale of the school tentatively includes the option for St. Bernard to lease back the land for a period of time. He said Wednesday he did not know the identity of the buyer or the sale price.
“As the Diocese’s plan was just submitted yesterday, we are still processing the implications. Realizing this news will create any number of questions from our community, we intend to provide future updates as conversations advance with the bankruptcy judge, the Diocese, and the proposed purchaser of the land,” he said in his letter.
Macrino said the school’s recent increased enrollment and other improvements and achievements “have the school well-positioned to address the educational needs of this generation of students and the next.”
“The need and desire for Saint Bernard has only been growing, and its directors and administration will work in unison with their partners to continue the school’s good work for decades to come,” the school stated in a press release.
Word of the sale began to spread among alumni on Wednesday.
“There’s tons of families that have had generations attend there. To think that would be in jeopardy is heart wrenching,” said Colin Ahern, a 2010 graduate of the school.
“I think a lot of alumni, parents, current students are going to be really upset by this,” Ahern said in a phone interview. “I’m close friends with someone who’s on the board of the school and I texted them right when I got the news and the board of directors only found out two nights ago.”
Ahern continued, “Everyone is still kind of in shock. The whole idea of the diocese selling a school, it just seems like they’re going to be causing more harm to children in a situation the diocese caused harm to children. It sounds like a terrible decision.’
“There are so many at Saint Bernard who have worked for decades to make that school a special place and the Diocese of Norwich has made a decision that could put that all in jeopardy,” he added.
Staff reporter Kevin Arnold contributed to this story.
This version is updated with the contributions from various parties to the trust, the latest enrollment figure provided by Macrino and the correct name of attorney Eric Henzy.