Diocese Details Sale of Watch Hill Property
The Sale of the Bishop's Watch Hill Summer Home to a Connecticut Couple for $7 Million Tops the List of Property Sold to Pay for Settlements in Sexual-Abuse Lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence
By Jennifer Levitz
Providence Journal [Providence RI]
May 29, 2003
Toward the end of a decade of arguing over sexual-abuse lawsuits, lawyers for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence warned publicly that settling out of court could mean selling Bishop Hendricken High School.
Now, some nine months after the diocese paid $14.25 million in legal settlements with 37 men and women, the sale list is out. It includes no properties that are high schools -- just high end.
The diocese yesterday reached a deal to sell the bishop's Watch Hill summer home to a West Hartford, Conn., couple for $7 million. The church also auctioned off 10 pieces of furniture from the house, raising $15,000.
In a statement from the diocese yesterday, Chief Financial Officer Michael F. Sabatino said the church had also appraised several other properties, and might sell those, too.
There is the old caretaker's house, worth $1.5 million, on 10 acres on Warwick Neck, next to the 75-room Aldrich mansion -- which the diocese has said it will not sell. There is a Block Island home that is "presently rented for vacations to diocesan clergy." The estimated value is $850,000.
There is vacant land in Westerly, Smithfield and Foster.
Many Catholics have been less surprised that the diocese is selling property than by the fact that the diocese owns such properties, and is now being open about it. During the litigation, lawyers and victims did their own investigations of local property rolls, since under an unusual 1901 Rhode Island law, the local Roman Catholic bishop is allowed to hold an unlimited amount of land, tax-free, in a company under his name only, with virtually no reporting requirements to the state.
Phyllis M. Hutnak, of Charlestown, who settled her sexual-abuse lawsuit against the diocese in September, was one of those people who scoured property records.
"A lot of people thought they would lose their churches and their schools [if the diocese settled]," she recalled.
"We never believed they didn't have the funding, or that they didn't have the ability to pull it together."
The proceeds from the sale of the 16-room Watch Hill mansion, called Cardome, will help repay the lines of credit borrowed last year to pay for the lawsuits.
Bishop Robert E. Mulvee said immediately after the settlements in September that he wouldn't dip into charity dollars to pay the church's legal debt. He said the settlements would be paid from certain reserves, pending insurance claims and the sale of church property not related to ministry.
"The property at Watch Hill was one of the first to come to mind," he said yesterday, in a statement. "It has served several bishops very well as a place of summer retreat. Many other priests of the diocese have also used the property. It is sad to see it go, but its value to us as a summer residence pales in comparison to its value in bringing a healing response to victims of sexual abuse."
Paul Daqui, of West Hartford, Conn., bought the Watch Hill house in the sale that closed yesterday. Daqui is a commercial real estate developer, but, he said, his plans for the oceanfront home are personal, not business. It will be a private family home.
"It's one of the top 10 houses on the Rhode Island shore," he said. "It's just a beautiful location."
The house came to belong to the diocese because of Marion de St. Aubin, a Providence Catholic. She died in the winter of 1942, from pneumonia, heart troubles, and, according to her death certificate, a second-degree burn on her thigh from a heating pad.
According to her will, she left her nieces and nephews $500. She left her brother-in-law silverware and linen marked with the family name. She left the church her greatest gifts: $5,000 to her parish, and the rest of her estate to Bishop Francis P. Keough, the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Providence. That included her Watch Hill home, which was worth $35,000 at the time.
Five years later, Bishop Keough was named the archbishop of Baltimore. The house was transferred from Bishop Keough's estate to succeeding bishops in Rhode Island.
The sexual-abuse lawsuits across the nation have moved many of the nearly 192 dioceses to consider paring down. David Clohessy, the executive director of the national organization the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the Providence diocese's plans are among the more substantial.
"Certainly dozens of dioceses have suggested the sale of property," he said. "But I would say that you can count on one or two hands the number of dioceses that actually have."
Edward J. Greenan, a former Navy captain who lives in Jamestown, is the Rhode Island regional coordinator for Voice of the Faithful, the network of Catholics that formed last year in a church basement in Wellesley, Mass., calling for change. Some 90 or so Rhode Island Catholics meet monthly in a parish in South County as part of Voice of the Faithful. Greenan said yesterday that a few things struck him about the diocese's sale of property.
One was that the diocese has "all this property a lot of people don't know about."
Also, he commended the diocese's openness about what the settlements are costing.
"More and more," he said, "they need to open the records and let the diocese know what this has cost them in the last 30 years."
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