Gratifying Moment for Firm That Took on Church

December 7, 2009

Thomas B. Scheffey
Connecticut Law Tribune

Lawyers say attitudes have changed since filing of first priest case.

Last week’s release of more than 12,000 files from priest abuse lawsuits against the Bridgeport Diocese is a long-awaited high point for lawyers at the Bridgeport firm of Tremont Sheldon P.C..

After all, for about 17 years, the firm has been immersed in an issue that has been discussed and debated in newspaper stories, courtrooms, church parish halls and even the Vatican. But when the late Paul Tremont filed the first of his legal actions in 1993, the reaction was hostile, and the attorney was vilified at first.

Partner Jason Tremont, Paul’s son, said when his father first heard the stories of sexual abuse at the hands of trusted clergy, “he was personally devastated by it. He made sure he was going to pursue it. He knew it was correct and he wasn’t going to be deterred.”

Overall, the Tremont legal team has represented more than 100 clergy abuse victims and negotiated settlements totaling more than $50 million. The unsealing of the documents was the result of a separate and ambitious open records case involving the records of 24 Tremont clients.

In Rosado v. Bridgeport Diocesean Corp., the Hartford Courant, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post fought to gain access to the court records of the settled cases. Despite vigorous legal efforts by the Bridgeport Diocese to keep the records sealed, the state Supreme Court this year ruled that the records should be made public and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.

And so the records were made public to the media and lawyers on Dec. 1. In a prepared statement, the Bridgeport Diocese said the documents related to misconduct from the 1960s and 1970s include pre-trial materials such as motions, depositions, testimony, and correspondence; had previously been shared with victims and their lawyers; and had been the topic of many previous newspaper stories.

The statement continued: “Over the past decade, the Diocese of Bridgeport – and, indeed, the Catholic Church throughout the United States – has brought about a significant culture change regarding the knowledge of and ability to deal with sexual abuse. The Diocese has worked and will continue to work diligently and transparently to address the issue of sexual abuse in order to prevent this tragedy from happening again.”

‘Sense of Arrogance’

To the Tremont lawyers, it was Egan who came to embody the Catholic Church’s attitude of dismissive hauteur.

She added: “His word choice was interesting. I was just re-reading it. He really did not want to be part of these cases, and it came across that he never addressed the victims, who are all part of the Catholic faithful.”

“The only apology that ever came about, was once the case was resolved, there was a statement [expressing concern for all the victims],” she said. “But until the case was resolved, it was always attack mode on the victims, and their families.

No Pseudonyms

Of the 26 cases whose files were unsealed, two belonged to clients of Fairfield solo Henry Lyons who were allegedly abused by the Rev. Raymond Pcolka. The Tremont firm also made claims against Pcolka.

Years ago, the diocese, in asking for an end to litigation, asserted that it had never had complaints about Pcolka, and that he was a “good man,” according to the Tremont attorneys. But just-released court records show there had been complaints about Pcolka since the mid-1960s.

Almost all of the Tremont firm’s clients sued under their own names, and did not use pseudonyms that are often used by sex abuse victims.

Clash of Institutions

With sections about computers and information management, it “tries to meld the old Canon law, which dealt with secret archives and hiding documents, and putting it into a 21st century world.”

Canon law requires each diocese to have a secret archive, and only the bishop is to have access. The secret archives hold documents that would cause the diocese great embarrassment, such as alleged crimes by its priests.

In the earliest stages of the Rosado case, journalists sought court files that had been left in the Waterbury courthouse in the wake of the case settlement. Courts were split on the rights of litigants to withdraw their files, versus the court’s continuing jurisdiction over files of great public interest. Ultimately, the Connecticut court system ruled against providing official cover for the church. In a landmark decision, issued in June, the Connecticut Supreme Court took a strong stand in favor of the openness of court records.

Meanwhile, in 2002, at the height of the outcry over the priest abuse crisis, American bishops, in a document known as the Dallas Charter, officially took the position that they would try to deal with these difficult issues in an atmosphere of candor and transparency.

The changes in both the Catholic Church and Connecticut courts would have been hard to predict when Paul Tremont filed his first controversial lawsuit in 1993.

Related Links

Sexual Abuse Legal Services
Church: Priests Involved in Litigation