SNAP Connecticut

Former Nun Accuses Local Principal Of Sexual Abuse
Alleged Offender Now Head Of Norwich Diocese School

Day Staff Columnist, Enterprise Reporter/Columnist
Published on 05/04/2005

Gabrielle Azzaro says it began when she was a young nun teaching in a parochial school in Pennsylvania.

"I was teaching eighth grade, she was the principal," Azzaro said Tuesday. "She would come into my bedroom every night and get her sexual needs met and then turn and fall asleep."

Now, 20 years later, Azzaro has learned that the woman she says abused her is the principal of an elementary school in the diocese of Norwich. Azzaro won't reveal the name of the nun who abused her, she says, "because I don't want press all over the school. I don't want kids involved."

But she has named her abuser to the diocese and asked that the woman be stripped of her position at the school.

Jacqueline Keller, spokeswoman for the diocese, said Tuesday the diocese is investigating the matter.

"We have heard from Ms. Azzaro and we're already in the process of addressing the concern she has raised," Keller said.

Because it's a personnel matter, the diocese could not issue any further comment, she said.

Azzaro said she knows that the diocese lay review panel charged with investigating allegations such as hers met April 14 and made recommendations, but she has not heard what those recommendations are.

Azzaro, now 51 and no longer a nun, and the woman she says preyed on her belonged to the order of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The abuse took place over a period of nearly three years, she said.

"In that order, the superior had all the power," Azzaro said. "If I needed deodorant, I had to ask her. If I needed to see a doctor, I had to ask her. We were taught she was God. Plus, I had entered the order right after high school; I was extremely na´ve."

She remembers thinking, "The only way to get away from her was to kill myself, and there was a railroad track near the convent, but I felt the conductor shouldn't have to deal with that for the rest of his life, and that's pretty much what kept me from doing it."

While newspapers have been filled with stories of children abused by priests, there have been far fewer stories of sexual abuse by nuns, but Azzaro said she believes it is far more widespread than people think.

Because she suffered from anorexia and severe panic attacks - "I would run out into the woods and hide in closets" - she was finally sent to a clinic for clergy who'd been sexually abused, the Villa St. John Vianney in Downingtown, Pa.

"It was a wonderful place," she said. "It gave me my life back."

And that's where she met many other victims of sexual abuse by nuns, including one man who was abused as a boy in fifth, sixth and seventh grades.

It has taken Azzaro many years to reach the point where she felt strong enough to come forward. The New Haven native is now the leader of the San Diego chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, and she is an assistant principal and teacher at a private school.

Norwich Bishop Michael R. Cote has adopted a zero-tolerance policy to allegations of abuse by clergy, ejecting two priests earlier this year because of allegations made against them in other dioceses years before.

In January, Cote asked the head of the Society of St. Edmund to remove the Rev. Paul Pinard, 73, from the diocese because of "substantial allegations of sexual misconduct with minors" during Pinard's service in Canada 14 years before.

Pinard had served at the Edmundites' retreat on Enders Island in Mystic without apparent incident since 1995.

Then in February, Cote forced the resignation of a priest who had served in the diocese for 24 years after learning he had been accused of sexually assaulting a child in New York 30 years before.

The Rev. R. Thomas McConaghy, who was pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Norwichtown and the mission church of St. John in Fitchville, stepped down when the diocese learned he had been accused of sexually abusing a boy at the LaSalle Military Academy in Oakdale, N.Y., from 1973 to 1975.

In both cases, Cote stressed that the resignations of Pinard and McConaghy were not to be construed as admissions of guilt but rather as a reflection of the diocese's concern for the safety of its young parishioners.

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Last Updated: October 26, 2005