The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport has agreed to pay $3.55 million to five men who claim in lawsuits they were sexually abused as children by priests.
The claimed abuse occurred from the late 1980s to the early 2000s by three priests, Rev. Walter Coleman, Rev. Robert Morrissey and Rev. Larry Jensen, in Bridgeport, Brookfield, Danbury and Ridgefield.
The settlements were reached following mediation with the law firm, Tremont, Sheldon, Robinson and Mahoney which represented the five plaintiffs.
“As a result of countless hours of effort and hard work over the past 25 years, our law firm has been able to develop a collection of materials and information which we use to get our clients compensation for the abuse they have suffered,” said Douglas Mahoney. “While the money can never take away their pain, we hope that the resolution will allow them to take a small step forward with their healing.”
The settlements come as Pope Francis is being lauded for directing the church to finally take responsibility and make amends for decades of abuse by priests amid reports from around the country and the world of abuse.
Bridgeport Bishop Frank J. Caggiano has gone to the forefront of a movement by the church to become more transparent revealing in a report last October that the diocese has paid $52.5 million to settle 156 allegations of sexual abuse by priests since 1953. He also appointed a retired judge to look into claims that the diocese covered up priests’ sexual abuse of children for decades.
“Institutions, such as the diocese, must understand that the only ways to combat and prevent the horrors of child abuse is through transparency, vigilance and accountability. This is a fight that we will continue to wage on behalf of all survivors,” said Attorney Cindy Robinson.
The Bridgeport law firm has represented a majority of the people involved in the settlements.
Connecticut has a five-year statute of limitations on criminal charges but in 2002 extended the limit on filing lawsuits until the alleged victims reach the age of 48. The legislatures in New York and Pennsylvania are debating similar laws but are facing stiff opposition from the church.
The diocese lists 26 priests on its website who have credibly been accused of sexual abuse in the diocese. Since the 1960s, according to the diocese's own records turned over to the courts, abuse allegations against priests was hidden and the priests accused of abuse were moved from parish to parish like some bizarre shell game. Bishop Walter Curtis hid priest abuse in the 1970s and his predecessor, Bishop Edward Egan, who later became New York's cardinal, continued the practice into the early 1990s, the records show.
Since 1993 the Tremont law firm has represented dozens of abuse victims in lawsuits against the diocese resulting in more than $35 million in settlements.
“The coverups have caused harm to so many children who loved their church and revered their parish priest,” said Jason Tremont, urging the diocese to release all documents regarding sexual abuse by its priests for “real transparency to occur and allow victims to heal.”
“The diocese has been made aware of these cases over the last several months and is cooperating with attorneys for the victims,” said Diocese Spokesman Brian Wallace. “Four allegations involve three diocesan priests (Walter P. Coleman, Martin Federici, Robert Morrissey) who were credibly accused of past abuse and removed from ministry. The fifth allegation involves a Maronite (order) priest, Fr. Larry Jensen, and was alleged to have happened in a Maronite facility. The diocese is committed to seeking justice, healing and reconciliation for victims, and preventing any further abuse through its Safe Environments programs.”
Coleman, who died in October 2016, served in 12 different parishes in the diocese since 1960, according to diocese records. Diocese officials first began getting complaints about him abusing children in the 1970s.
Court records show that Monsignor Laurence Bronkiewicz, the assistant to then-Bishop Edward Egan, was informed in 1994 about accusations that Coleman had abused children. Coleman was allowed to retire in 1995 after the first lawsuit was filed against him. But after he retired Hearst Connecticut Media discovered Coleman was serving as a priest in the Archdiocese of Miami.
His authorization to practice as a priest was removed by Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori in 2002.
Two of the men in the new lawsuits were altar boys at St. Patrick’s Church, now known as The Cathedral Parish in Bridgeport and students at St. Patrick’s School when they were allegedly abused in the 1970s and 1980s by Coleman who was pastor of the parish. The third man claims he was sexually abused by Coleman at St. Joseph’s Parish in Brookfield in the 1980s when Coleman was reassigned there as pastor.
The fourth plaintiff was allegedly sexually abused by Morrissey at St. Mary’s Parish in Ridgefield in the 1990s.
In 2001, Morrissey angrily denounced accusations of abuse against priests as a witch hunt from the pulpit of St. Mary’s. He resigned a year later after two men filed suit claiming Morrissey abused them at parishes in Stamford and Greenwich in the 1970s and 1980s. Removed from ministry in 2004, Morrissey died in December 2014.
The fifth alleged victim first met Rev. Jensen in the early 2000s at an Emmaus retreat. Emmaus is a youth ministry operated by the diocese for decades and thousands of children throughout Fairfield County have attended its overnight retreats.
Jensen, the spiritual director of the diocese’s Danbury program, is accused of abusing the plaintiff at St. Anthony Maronite Catholic Church where the program was held.
“Emmaus is supposed to be a retreat where the youth focus on their faith and relationship with god; instead we have seen predator priests use religion as a means to groom and ultimately abuse them,” said Jason Tremont.
Jensen served eight years at the Danbury church before being transferred to St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church in Waterville, Maine. He was removed from the priesthood in 2017 after the Tremont firm reported the claim and the Eparchy of St. Maronite of Brooklyn, N.Y., determined it was “substantiated.”
“Our role in the case was not central and I am grateful the case was given the respect it was due,” said Jensen’s lawyer, Philip Russell, said.
Jensen said in the 2006 interview that he tried to get youth more involved in church, starting a youth play for Christmas and a Passion play for teenagers and young adults.
"Children need to feel at home at their church," Jensen said at the time. "It is supposed to be a family feeling when they are here."