NEW HAVEN—The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport argued Monday that it cannot be held responsible for a priest who admittedly sexually abused young boys because priests are not its employees.
They are employees of the parish, not the diocese, a church official testified on the opening day of a civil trial in U.S. District Court.
The diocese is being sued by Frank Martinelli, 49, of Milwaukee, Wis., who says he was sexually abused three times by the Rev. Laurence Brett in 1962 and 1963 while attending Stamford Catholic High School.
The case is the opening round of what may be a series of trials in which the diocese is accused of coverup and negligence in the case of several priests accused of molesting children.
Another involves the Rev. Raymond Pcolka, former pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Greenwich. The way was cleared last week in state Superior Court in Bridgeport for the diocese to face civil claims of negligence in the Pcolka case. Fifteen people, men and women, say Pcolka molested them sexually in various parishes from 1966 to 1982. No date has been set yet for what may be one or more trials.
Pcolka walked out of a psychiatric treatment center in 1993 and cannot be found, the diocese says.
The Bridgeport cases have diocesan officials edgy because they are coming up only several weeks after a jury in Dallas awarded a record $120 million against the Texas diocese for not stopping a priest from sexually abusing at least 11 boys.
Diocesan spokesman Tom Drohan said the situations are different because evidence showed the Dallas diocese had not heeded several warnings that the offending priest, the Rev. Rudolph Kos, was molesting young boys. The Bridgeport diocese reacted swiftly when it had reports of misconduct against its priests, he said.
The diocese conceded in testimony in the federal lawsuit Monday that officials learned in December 1964 that Brett had sexually molested other boys. The diocese sent Brett for therapy to a treatment center in New Mexico.
Diocesan officials were directed to cover for his absence, according to a 1964 diocesan document that was entered into evidence. It said "a recurrence of hepatitis was to be feigned should anyone ask."
Laviano called it a "coverup" and pressed Monsignor Laurence R. Bronkiewicz on the issue. Bronkiewicz took the stand as a witness for the diocese on behalf of Bridgeport Bishop Edward M. Egan.
"Are you outraged by this conduct?" the attorney asked. Federal Judge Janet Bond Arterton ordered the question stricken as argumentative. It was one of several sharp exchanges during Bronkiewicz's three hours on the witness stand.
"The both of you -- stop it!" the judge admonished Laviano and diocesan attorney Joseph Sweeney, who were squabbling heatedly at one point.
The judge instructed six men and three women on the jury that they have to determine whether a statute of limitations applies to Martinelli for bringing the lawsuit. A plaintiff who contends he was abused as a child must file a lawsuit before he is 35 years old, the judge said. But it may be waived if the jury determines the diocese engaged in a coverup of Brett's misconduct, she said.
Martinelli listened throughout the day's testimony. He is expected to testify, probably today. Martinelli has said in a deposition that he repressed his memories of what happened to him with Brett until 1991. The memories came rushing back when he talked to a Stamford Catholic classmate whom he said Brett also abused.
Bronkiewicz insisted in his testimony that the bishop had no control over the day-to-day activities of a priest and that Brett "was never an employee of the diocese." He was, the monsignor contended, an employee of the parish.
He said it was true that children "are taught to respect and obey priests," but denied that that made the bishop liable for a priest's misconduct.
Laviano emphasized the pastoral authority of a bishop. He said the bishop was automatically president of every parish corporation in his diocese, which encompasses 88 parishes in Fairfield County. He also cited the staff, or crozier, the bishop carries as a symbol of his pastoral role and statements in the Catechism of the Catholic Church concerning the bishop's position of authority.
Monsignor Bronkiewicz testified that he was in touch with Brett after Martinelli's allegations were made known to the diocese in 1993, but not since then. He said he did not know where the priest had gone.
When Brett was released with a good recommendation from the New Mexico treatment center about 1965, Brett was assigned to the Diocese of Sacramento at the recommendation of the Diocese of Bridgeport.
A letter from Bridgeport to Sacramento disclosed that Brett had been treated because of conduct "of a homosexual nature." The letter did not say the conduct involved children.
When other allegations of sexual misconduct arose against Brett in Sacramento in 1992, he was suspended from the ministry, Bronkiewicz testified. Technically, Brett remains a priest of the Bridgeport diocese, Bronkiewicz said.
In an action before the trial began, the judge removed Brett as a defendant in the lawsuit because his whereabouts are unknown and legal papers could not be served on him.
Joseph Sweeney, an attorney for the diocese, in comments to the press, rejected Laviano's characterization of a priest being an "independent contractor."