Catholic group’s emails indicate Herbst a supporter of painting’s removal

"Onward We March," an acrylic painting on 48" x 96" canvas by Robin Morris was hanging at the Trumbull Library until the first selectman had it taken down.
“Onward We March,” an acrylic painting on 48″ x 96″ canvas by Robin Morris was hanging at the Trumbull Library until the first selectman had it taken down.

A chain of emails among Knights of Columbus in Trumbull show an organized effort to get a controversial painting taken down. A few of the emails make it appear that Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst and a member of the Town Council were on board with the mission.

The painting at The Trumbull Library, part of the Great Minds Collection, led to outcry from some area Catholics for its depiction of Mother Teresa with pro-choice feminists.

Herbst has cited legal reasons for the painting’s removal. Late Wednesday Herbst sent an indemnification agreement to the painting’s owner, Richard Resnick, and released a statement saying he is ready to put the painting up, once the agreement is signed. In his latest statement he also blames the library for causing community division. Herbst has denied removing the painting because of pressure from the church.

From email correspondences obtained by The Trumbull Times, it appears that outcry started with Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, who were joined by the Rev. Brian Gannon of St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church, in decrying the artwork as “blasphemy.”

The emails, which started mid-February, are part of chain with the subject: “Offensive artwork at Trumbull Library – Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Daughters of Charity Placed in False Light.”

In one email, dated Feb. 14, Father Gannon writes to thank others for a quick protest of the painting.

“Joe Pifko told me it will be removed Monday,” an email signed ‘Fr. Gannon’ reads. “This alleged artwork is utter blasphemy and an attempted manipulation of God. Let’s keep a close vigilance, the winds of evil are blowing with greater ferocity every day.”

Pifko is a Republican Town Council member, who represents District 4. He responds on Feb. 14, indicating Herbst is on board with the cause.

“I have contacted First Selectman Herbst and he is outraged at this display,” the email reads. “The Library Board has been notified and there will be a meeting with the First Selectman on Monday morning to remove this piece!”

Others on the email chain encourage more members to reach out to library staff, elected officials and others in the church. Later emails indicate Bishop Frank Caggiano is working to help the cause by talking to Herbst.

On Feb. 21, a email signed by “John” explains that town attorneys are looking into copyright issues.

“As of this afternoon, First Selectman and Town Attorney are reviewing Copy Right legalities, as it relates to images of Mother Theresa and Her Mission of Charity,” John writes.

He later writes, “A special thanks to two valiant warriors, Fr Gannon and Brother Knight Joe Pifko, who are working all the angles, to ensure this painting is taken down and never used in its current form again.”

On Feb. 26, the group receives word the painting will be coming down, Pifko writes in an email that he has been provided with a legal opinion by the town.

“Mr. Herbst and his office have been extremely helpful in this matter,” Pifko writes. “There have been many phone calls, emails and a personal meeting with us. He has even talked with the Bishop regarding this. I have thanked him for his involvement and commitment.”

The emails go on to discuss ways the group can generate positive publicity on this victory, though Father Gannon warns it could lead to “spiritual warfare.”

Herbst sent out the information on the painting in a press release Monday morning.

Herbst responds

First Selectman Tim Herbst
First Selectman Tim Herbst

The first selectman said Wednesday he can’t control what a third-party might write about him in an email. He said his conversation with Pifko centered on his legal concerns, which he said he was outraged about.

While legal issues didn’t come up until later in the emails, Herbst said he had talked to others who were offended by the painting and legal issues had already come to light for him at that time.

“I said I could understand how people could find this offensive but we were more concerned about the liability,” Herbst said.

Wednesday afternoon, Herbst released the following statement on the painting:

“First Selectman Timothy M. Herbst and Town Attorney Dennis J. Kokenos on Wednesday provided Dr. Richard Resnick and his Attorney, Bruce Elstein with an indemnification agreement to be signed by Dr. Resnick and the Town of Trumbull. The agreement holds the Town harmless from any third party claims and also holds the town harmless if the artwork is somehow damaged, destroyed or stolen. The agreement also requires the owner of the artwork to provide an insurance certificate to the Town. The Town Attorney indicated that this agreement will be used going forward for all other art displayed in municipal buildings in the Town of Trumbull.

The Town Attorney noted that the artwork that currently hangs in the library without an agreement is valuable and the Town needs to be protected. “I think it is critical to point out that Trumbull’s Art Director has estimated that the Great Minds Collection can be worth upwards of $7000 to $10,000 per piece in the collection,” Town Attorney Dennis Kokenos wrote to Attorney Bruce Elstein. “This would bring the estimate of the total thirty-three piece collection in a range of $231,000 to $330,000. For the Town to continue to display this collection it absolutely must have assurances as set forth in the attached agreement.” The Town Attorney further noted that as soon as the agreement is executed the controversial artwork in question could be re-hung. “As soon as the agreement is executed by Dr. Resnick, the artwork can be re-hung in the library. Absent a formal agreement between Dr. Resnick and the Town, all of the artwork will have to be removed to protect the Town from liability.”

In his letter to Elstein, Kokenos noted that the Town of Trumbull was eager to complete the execution of the agreement and put the matter to rest. “Given your client’s email confirming that he will in fact indemnify the Town and your statements to the Connecticut Post and Fox 61, I would imagine that I will have the signed agreement forwarded to my office immediately as not to delay this matter any further. What is proposed herein is nothing more than what has already been agreed upon by you and your client and will bring much needed closure to this issue. I look forward to a speedy response and amicable resolution to this matter,” Kokenos wrote.

First Selectman Timothy M. Herbst noted that the Town of Trumbull requires written indemnification from third parties for artwork hung at the Town Hall and that the Trumbull Library should be no exception. “I am deeply troubled that the Library Director and Library Board of Directors did not consider the implications of hanging valuable artwork in a public facility without an agreement being executed between the owner and the Town. It is unfortunate that an agreement was not in place to begin with, as this entire situation would have likely been avoided,” Herbst said. “Our job is to take corrective action to make sure that this does not happen again in the future. The ball is now in Dr. Resnick’s court. As soon as this agreement is signed, the sooner we bring closure to this issue.” The First Selectman noted that he also spoke to the Town’s Insurance Broker, who advised him that it was imperative that an indemnification agreement and certificate of insurance be secured as quickly as possible if the artwork remains in the library.

Herbst said that public libraries should be cultural centers that bring communities together. Instead, Herbst said, the approach of the Library System brought division within the community and going forward, the library system needed to be cognizant of how actions might impact alternate points of view. “Good people can disagree on issues of public importance. That is what makes our country such a special place. But public buildings should bring people together to have an open exchange of alternate points of view. Public buildings should not make any member of the community feel that their point of view is secondary to another. That in and of itself is “un-American” and going forward, as I appoint citizens to serve on the Trumbull Library Board of Directors, my litmus test will be whether members approach their duties fairly and impartially, placing the good of the Town ahead of any personal or partisan considerations.””