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Attorney Robert I. Reardon, Jr.

Record $2M Deal Reached In Priest-Sex Case

Michael Nelligan v. Diocese of Norwich, et al.: In what is reportedly the largest settlement of a priest sex abuse case in Connecticut, New London plaintiffs’ attorney Robert I. Reardon has settled a case against the Diocese of Norwich for the actions of the late defrocked priest, Bruno Primavera.

The matter was scheduled to go to trial in a month. Reardon settled the case with the aid of former Supreme Court Justice Angelo G. Santaniello. Joseph T. Sweeney, of Hartford’s Halloran & Sage, represented the diocese.

In the four years since Michael Nelligan filed suit, discovery in the case has unearthed what Reardon describes as a shocking paper trail of official indifference to a priest who was a continuing threat to young boys. Sweeney said that Primavera was a “pathetic man.” The Nelligan case “seemed to have credible witnesses, and the plaintiff was very much in need of mental health care … ,” he said.

Primavera, originally of Fairfield County, graduated from a seminary in Weston, Mass., and was ordained in Toronto in 1973. In a 1978 letter from Thomas B. Fulton, the auxiliary bishop of Toronto, the bishop of Norwich got a clear warning about Primavera’s problems with money and sex, in that order. “First, he has demonstrated an inability to handle his own personal finances to the extent that he found himself hopelessly in debt,” Fulton wrote. “Secondly, he has shown a tendency to seek out the companionship of young teenage boys, on a one to one basis,” Fulton wrote.

Bishop Daniel P. Reilly had an assistant check further into Primavera’s problems, Sweeney said, and placed him under a no-nonsense priest at St. Mark’s in Westbrook. “Father Terrence Finnegan had good people skills, and could keep an eye on him,” said Sweeney.

Finnegan was succeeded by Father Zenon Smilga, who didn’t get along with Primavera. He suspected him of theft from the collection plates, and instituted a more accountable system. Instantly, collections doubled, Sweeney said. A year and a half later, Primavera was writing Reilly, seeking another transfer. He “categorically” denied “any overt sexual behavior, etc., with young men of the parish.”

He was then transferred to New London’s St. Mary’s Church, where he allegedly molested Michael Long, of Waterford. Long’s case, said Sweeney, stems from a single incident in which Long, then 15, only told his mother that “something bad” had happened at the church. Bishop Reilly got that vague warning from Long’s mother right before Waterford police discovered Primavera with two boys in a car at night in a “compromising position,” said Sweeney. Without delay, Primavera was terminated and sent back to Canada.

Reardon settled the Long case last November for $1.1 million. In September, Reardon’s firm settled an $850,000 priest abuse case with the Diocese of Hartford. The three settlements total $3,950,000.

Nelligan is unemployed, and continues to receive treatment for emotional health difficulties, said Reardon, who relied on expert testimony from Father Thomas Doyle and A. Richard Sipe to build his case. “Father Doyle was assigned by the papacy in 1984 to go to New Orleans after the first widely-reported molestation appeared. He’s a lawyer from the papal legal team,” said Reardon.

In Nelligan’s case, “Father Doyle gave the opinion that the Diocese of Norwich failed entirely in its responsibility to properly investigate Bruno Primavera before inviting him into the diocese, and failed to warn the parishioners.”

When the diocese attempted to prevent disclosure of Primavera’s personnel records for the Nelligan case, Judge Trial Referee Daniel Spallone denied it in a 2003 decision. “I’ve received requests from all over the country for that decision,” Reardon said.

At the time, Sweeney said his only goal was to minimize publicity, not keep the personnel documents out of the case. “Any employer has a duty to protect the confidentiality of personnel files, as a matter of law,” said Sweeney.

-By Thomas B. Scheffey