James D. Fish v. Norwich Roman Catholic Diocese et al.: In a letter from Bishop Michael Cote read to parishioners at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Pawcatuck on Oct. 28, the diocese announced the latest in what now totals $4.6 million in settlements from priest abuse cases.

Pawcatuck resident James D. Fish settled his case against the Rev. Paul Hebert for $170,000, after alleging in 2005 that he was abused as a sixth-grader in 1973 and 1974. As recently as Sept. 7, in Fish’s first amended complaint, Fish asserted that even before Hebert came to the diocese, and during his tenure, the diocese was warned “of the danger that Father Hebert posed to children,” but did nothing about it. Hebert has consistently denied culpability.

Fish and his lawyers, however, were not able to come up with definitive proof that the diocese had prior notice that Hebert was a threat to children. In earlier pleadings, Fish contended there was a seven-and-a-half year gap in Hebert’s personnel files.

If the plaintiffs had uncovered documents indicating that the diocese had been warned “of Hebert’s inappropriate proclivities prior to the dates of the abuse, I believe this case would have a value of over $1 million,” said plaintiff’s lawyer Thomas M. McNamara, of New Haven’s McNamara & Goodman.

McNamara has brought numerous priest abuse cases in the past 15 years. “In other cases, that notice has taken the form of a memo, or a letter from somebody complaining–anything putting them on alert that this guy was a problem. We didn’t have any of that.”

The diocese and St. Michael’s was represented by Gary C. Kaisen, of Branford’s Milano & Wanat. In an interview, Kaisen commended the mediation assistance of former state Supreme Court Justice Angelo G. Santaniello and the “consummate professionalism” of opposing counsel. The case had been characterized in press reports as more adversarial than it actually was, said Kaisen.

In interrogatories last summer of Fish and a female abuse plaintiff, Kaissen sought personal and sexual information going back to when the plaintiffs were 5 or 6 years old. In court papers, McNamara objected to answering them, saying many of the questions bordered on harassment and were designed to wear down plaintiffs. A request for a list of all of Fish’s sex partners violated his personal boundaries, much as they were violated by Hebert in 1973, McNamara objected. There was no judicial ruling on the objection before the case settled, McNamara said.

“As invasive as these interrogatories were, there has been a dramatic progression over the years of defense attorney for the church, where the true believers would do anything to insult the victims. In contrast, Gary is a professional and a nice guy,” said McNamara.

Psychologist Robin Grant Hall, a Glastonbury forensic expert, helped make the case for Fish’s damages in settlement negotiations, McNamara noted.

Thomas B. Scheffey