Five new lawsuits charging sexual abuse of minors by priests were filed against the Diocese of Bridgeport last week — including one alleging sexual misconduct by the late Father Robert Morrissey during his time as pastor of St. Mary Church in Ridgefield.

“During the 1990s, Morrissey sexually assaulted, sexually battered, and sexually exploited the plaintiff, Edward Doe, thereby causing him injury and damage,” claims a lawsuit filed Friday, Sept. 22, in state Superior Court in Bridgeport.

“As a result thereof, the plaintiff suffered injuries of a serious and permanent nature in that he suffered physical injuries resultant from the sexual abuse and assault and severe emotional injuries including emotional distress, anxiety, frustration, disassociation, post-traumatic stress and permanent psychological scarring…”

Church higher-ups are charged with failing to address priestly misconduct and seeking to keep allegations quiet — leaving more potential victims in the care of priests accused of sexual exploitating children.

The diocese “...failed to establish, maintain and enforce a policy of reporting, investigating, pursuing and removing members of its clergy engaged in sexual misconduct and instead adhered to a policy of discouraging the dissemination of information regarding the sexual misconduct of priests with minors…,” the suit involving Morrissey charges.

St. Mary Parish in Ridgefield, as well as the Diocese of Bridgeport, are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

“People need to be aware that is not how we do business any more,” said Brian Wallace, director of communications for the Diocese of Bridgeport.

Today, allegations of child abuse are immediately passed on to secular authorities, he said.

“If anyone comes forward and says they were abused ... we are mandatory reporters,” Wallace said. “They put the phone down and they report it to the Department of Children and Families. And they report it to the police…”

Wallace said the lawsuits are based on allegations from years ago, and the priests involved have all died.

“They’ve long since passed away,” he said. “We’re not talking about recent abuse — it doesn’t mitigate it in any way, but to put it in perspective.”

Priests subject to credible accusations of child abuse lose authorization to work as priests, he said, a policy dating back to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People — the “Dallas Charter” — adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002.

“The bishop takes away their ability to conduct any public ministry. They cannot say Mass or perform any priestly function in a public sense,” Wallace said. “That was the case with Father Morrissey.”

100 cases

The lawsuits were filed against the Diocese of Bridgeport by the law firm Tremont Sheldon Robinson Mahoney, which has been representing victims of priest sexual abuse for decades.

“These five lawsuits would bring the total number of clients our firm has represented to 100 for cases where a child was sexually abused by a priest within the Diocese of Bridgeport,” said attorney Douglas Mahoney.

In addition to the suit involving Father Morrissey, three lawsuits filed last week charged abuse by Father Walter Philip Coleman, who during 57 years in the priesthood worked at 11 churches and schools in the Bridgeport Diocese, including Sacred Heart Church in Georgetown, St. Joseph’s Church in Danbury, St. Aloysius Church in New Canaan, Immaculate High School in Danbury and Central Catholic High School in Norwalk .

Two victims said they were abused while Coleman served at St. Patrick’s Church — now known as Cathedral Parish — in Bridgeport in the 1970s and 1980s. The third victim alleged abuse while Coleman was assigned to St. Joseph’s Parish in Brookfield in the 1980s.

The fifth lawsuit charges abuse by Father Larry Jensen in the early 2000s in Danbury. The victim met Father Jensen through the Emmaus retreat program at Immaculate High School, and the abuse is alleged to have occurred at St. Anthony Maronite Church.

Wallace, the diocese spokesman, noted that, as a Maronite priest, Father Jensen was not under the Diocese of Bridgeport’s authority.

Wallace also said the diocese website lists all its priests who have been “credibly accused” of child sexual abuse. There are 26 names on the list.

The list isn’t on the website’s home page, but may be reached by clicking “administrative offices” near the top of the page, then “safe environments” in the drop-down menu.

Moving priests

“It is true in our diocese as well as the church across the U.S., prior to the Dallas Charter … priests who had abused were moved to different settings — there was no public disclosure” Wallace said. “Unfortunately, that happened in our church, and that’s the crisis we’ve been dealing with for the last 15 or 20 years.”

This touches on the previous service of the current pastor at St. Mary Church in Ridgefield, Monsignor Lawrence Bronkiewicz.

Prior to coming to Ridgefield, he served the diocese in a capacity similar to a director of personnel.

Msgr. Bronkiewicz’ tenure as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Religious spans from 1986 to 1999, roughly corresponding to Bishop Edward Egan’s tenure in Bridgeport,” Wallace said in an email response to a question about the pastor’s previous duties...

“In layman’s terms, the Episcopal Vicar for Clergy overseas personnel and human resources issues and policies.”

Msgr. Bronkiewicz became pastor in Ridgefield in 2003.

Asked to reflect upon decisions made in previous years, Msgr. Bronkiewicz declined, directing questions to the diocese’s communications director.

“Since I concluded my service to the diocese back in 2002, Brian Wallace would now be the appropriate person to speak with about these matters,” Msgr. Bronkiewicz said.

Vulnerable

The lawsuit alleging misconduct by Father Morrissey asserts that as a young, faithful Catholic, the victim was especially vulnerable to an abusive priest.

The plaintiff learned in school and in church that, as a good Catholic, he was to adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church, follow the mandates and guidance of the defendant Diocese and its bishop and hold its clergy, priests and bishops in the highest regard,” the lawsuit charges.

“Morrissey fostered a close relationship with the plaintiff allowing him to spend time with him …

the defendant was taught to respect and defer and did so defer, to the authority of its clergy and priests…”

The diocese “failed to police the activities of its priests including its failure to provide or enforce rules prohibiting clergy from having children in private rooms and places and being unchaperoned with minors both upon premises it owned and controlled and/or taken from premises unchaperoned … it systematically covered-up sexual misconduct by its priests so as to further endanger minor parishioners such as the plaintiff.”

The suit charges the diocese “failed to properly and adequately investigate and supervise Morrissey in order to prevent such sexual abuse and sexual exploitation from occurring when it knew or should have known that since the inception of the Diocese some of its priests have sexually abused children; that it induced the Catholic faithful to entrust their children’s moral and spiritual well-being and safety to its priests and its schools then failed to protect these children…”

Shame admitted

Wallace, the diocese communications director, was adamant that things are different now — priests charged with abuse are no longer given a period of psychiatric care and then a new church assignment.

“We don’t do business that way,” Wallace said. “We as a church, from the Pope on down, have admitted the shame of what happened … to have moved these people around and not fully come to terms with the impact of abuse on young people.”

But he felt the church’s positive role in life shouldn’t be completely obscured.

“Most of our priests do incredibly good work. They’re out there all the time,” he said. “...They’re there to bring the sacraments to people, work with people in crisis, to bring people healing and reconciliation. We don’t want to lose that in the process,” Wallace said.

Douglas Mahoney, the Sheldon and Tremont attorney who’s worked on priest sex abuse cases for years, said concern should be focused on the abuse victims.

"These are people who have been through so much,” he said. “It is devastating."