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Bridgeport diocese haunted by past abuse

BRIDGEPORT - In 2001, the Rev. Robert Morrissey, then-pastor of St. Mary's Church in Ridgefield, angrily denounced from the pulpit the growing sexual abuse scandal, calling it a witch hunt and saying he knew of no priests who had abused children.

One year later, he was forced to resign after being confronted with allegations he had molested a 15-year-old boy in the late 1970s.

A lawsuit pending in state Superior Court in Bridgeport charges he molested a boy at St. Mary's School in Greenwich.

Lawyers for five former altar boys, alleged the five had been sexually assaulted by four priests in the 1970s and 1980s, and pressed Thursday for the diocese to make records on the cases public.

"There's no better proof that bishops aren't reforming than their continuing legal maneuvers to maintain secrecy about clergy sex crimes and cover ups at all costs," said David Clohessy, director of the national organization Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the day after diocese lawyers on Thursday urged a judge to keep records of abuse by priests secret.

"Remember all those pledges by bishops to be 'transparent' about clergy sex crimes?" he said. "Clearly those promises were nothing but public relations."

But Brian Wallace, a spokesman for the Bridgeport Diocese, said diocese officials are trying to protect the good names of priests who have never been accused of abuse but are mentioned in the hundreds of pages of documents.

"These priests are not in any way implicated in the current cases, and the diocese has complied with the request, producing the documents. However, it is seeking to limit the use of this information outside of the current cases at issue," Wallace said.

Innocence and guilt

The past cases continue to haunt the diocese, particularly in this most recent suit involving the four priests.

The other priests include the Rev. Walter Coleman, who was sexually assaulting a teenage boy in the 1970s while having an affair with the boy's mother, according to court records. He is accused in a pending lawsuit of molesting a boy at St. Patrick's Church in Bridgeport.

Another, the Rev. Martin Federici, was assigned by Bishop Edward Egan - later New York Cardinal - in 1989 to the former Cathedral High School in Bridgeport.

But a pending lawsuit states he had already been accused of molesting a boy at St. Edward the Confessor in New Fairfield.

The Rev. James Gildea was a teacher and guidance counselor at Notre Dame High School in Fairfield. He is accused of molesting a teenaged boy at the school during his counseling sessions in the 1970s.

The team of lawyers seeking to make public the diocesan documents strongly disagree with Wallace's assessment.

Cindy Robinson, who along with Jason Tremont and Douglas Mahoney have demanded the diocesan documents as part the lawsuits they have pending against, countered: "Yesterday's argument (Thursday) was confined to two priests who they admit sexually abuse children - and not innocent priests."

And while Wallace said Friday the diocese wants to settle the pending lawsuits but has been rebuffed by the lawyers, Robinson said Bishop Frank J. Caggiano has not taken the approach "of compassion and caring exhibited by Bishop Lori" that resulted in settlements of more than $30 million for more than two dozen people the law firm represented in abuse suits against the diocese.

"The diocese, through its attorneys, has refused to mediate the cases under the same terms as Bishop Lori. Rather the diocese has chosen to spend substantial sums of money paying attorneys rather than settling these cases. The result are hearings such as we had yesterday where a team of lawyers for the diocese files motions seeking to prevent the public from knowing what is going on," Robinson said.

A Shelton priest

What won't be among the hundreds of documents the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport is trying to block from being made public are the details of a Shelton priest who was recently place on administrative leave for allegedly having sex with a minor.

The Rev. John Stronkowski was put on a leave of absence in May 2014 as pastor of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Church.

In a letter, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano told the parish's 700 families the move was result of Stronkowski's "persistent absenteeism from both the rectory and the parish and its ministries, his growing difficulties with both the staff and lay leaders of the parish and other personal and administrative shortcomings."

But this June, Stronkowski's name suddenly appeared on the diocese's list of "Credibly Accused Diocesan Priests."

The names of the four other priests also appear on the same list.

Bishop Caggiano once against sent a letter to Shelton parishioners.

"It is with deep regret that I must inform you that I have placed Reverend John Stronkowski on administrative leave and have removed his faculties to exercise any and all forms of public ministry as a priest," the letters begins.

It then continues there is credible evidence of an incident of abuse of a minor more than a decade ago.

"The incident occurred sometime in the 1990s," said diocese spokesman Brian Wallace. He said the complaint was forwarded by an adult and the diocese contacted the police and the state Department of Children and Families.

Wallace would not disclose any details of the complaint because he said the victim doesn't want it released but said, "The case was very difficult to determine credibility."

He continued that the diocese hired a private investigator and twice submitted it to the diocese board that investigates abuse complaints against priests before determining the complaint was credible.

"No one else has come forward with a complaint against him (Stronkowski) since then," Wallace added.

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