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Supreme Court Justice found in violation of disclosure law

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Ethics Commission ruled Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty violated state financial disclosure law by not reporting his involvement in a religious society comprised of attorneys and judges.

The ethics complaint was filed in 2016 by Rhode Island native Helen Hyde, who one of two plaintiffs in a 2016 Supreme Court ruling involving Flaherty, who wrote the decision for the civil case.

The Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision against Hyde’s demand for financial damages from the Bishop of Providence in a sexual abuse case.

Hyde alleged she was molested in the late 60’s in East Greenwich by the late Father Brendan Smyth, 
who died in prison after he was convicted of molesting 141 children over four decades.

By the time Hyde came forward, the statute of limitations on her case had expired.

In her complaint, Hyde said Flaherty should have disclosed his involvement with the Saint Thomas More Society since her case involved the Catholic Church.

Hyde did not attend Tuesday’s hearing, writing in an email that she no longer lives in New England. 

“I am pleased the ethics commission determined that Mr. Flaherty violated the state code of ethics,” Hyde said. “It was troubling that Mr. Flaherty concealed his role as President of the Catholic legal society while sitting on cases involving the Catholic church.” 

According to the complaint, the society promotes “the study by Catholic lawyers of the application of Christian principles to modern problems.”

The complaint states the society and the Diocese of Providence organize the annual Red Mass to mark the opening of the judicial term.

After the ethics commission’s unanimous decision, Flaherty was asked about concerns his involvement with the religious society influenced the high court’s ruling on Hyde’s case.  

Flaherty shook his head and pointed out the court’s decision was unanimous and upheld the lower court’s ruling.

Flaherty said he will appeal the commission’s decision that followed a rare, trial-like proceeding by the ethics commission, with Flaherty among the three witnesses, all judges, who testified about the local Saint Thomas More Society.

Flaherty admitted he did not disclose he was president of the organization from 2010 to 2015 on his annual financial disclosure statements, telling the commission, “It never even entered my mind.”

“I think [the commission] got it wrong,” Flaherty said afterwards.

Flaherty testified his ommission was neither willful nor knowing, and said the local branch of the national society has no building or budget and rarely meets.

He said it was debatable that he was required to report his relationship with a non-profit that did not provide any financial gain to him.

Commission Prosecutor Katherine D’Arezzo argued the question on the disclosure form is clear, asking the official if they “were a director, officer, partner, or trustee of any business, organization or other entity (for profit or non-profit)”

During the proceeding, Flaherty was asked if he thought he should have listed his involvement with the Saint Thomas More Society.

“I didn’t know it was a non-profit corporation but it was an entity,” Flaherty said. “Looking back on it now, after having gone through all this, perhaps.” 

The ruling against Flaherty included a $200 fine.

His attorney Marc DeSisto did not have a time frame for when the appeal would be filed, or how long that part of the process would take.

While Hyde did not attend the hearing, her friend Terry McKiernan, who also works with the watchdog group Bishop Accountability, was there.

He said the Saint Thomas More Society is a concern of many who worried about the separation of church and state. 

“I think survivors are understandably concerned about the activities of the society, the Red Mass, about what that might mean to their cases,” McKiernan said.  

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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