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  Vt. Diocese Trying to Settle with Accuser

By Kevin O’Connor kevin.oconnor@rutlandherald.com
Rutland Herald [Vermont]
September 28, 2003

Vermont’s Catholic Church is working to settle the first of an increasing number of lawsuits accusing state priests of child sexual abuse.

The Diocese of Burlington is negotiating a tentative agreement to pay Paul Babeu an unspecified sum in return for his dropping his court case against it.

Babeu, a 34-year-old former Massachusetts county commissioner, says he was 15 when the Rev. George Paulin, most recently a Ludlow pastor before resigning this year, abused him on an overnight visit to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

Babeu, now of Arizona, filed his lawsuit against the priest and the diocese last December, only to see church lawyers spend months trying to dismiss or delay it. But after taking initial testimony, the diocese started talking with Babeu’s lawyer, Thomas Bixby of Brattleboro.

“We are in negotiations with the Burlington Diocese,” Bixby said late Friday.

The diocese’s lawyer, William M. O’Brien of Winooski, confirmed the discussions, adding he hoped the church could move on to settle at least three other lawsuits against it.

“We are anxious to resolve every case,” O’Brien said, “but that has to do a lot with the plaintiffs’ expectations and demands.”

Specifically, the Diocese of Burlington doesn’t have insurance for such cases, so it will have to be able to pay for any settlements with resources on hand.

The diocese has about $23.4 million in assets, which doesn’t include property held by individual parishes, according to a 2002 audit.

Of that, $17.5 million is money invested in stocks and bonds to support such statewide causes as Vermont Catholic Charities and a medical and retirement fund for clergy. Another $2.4 million is property and equipment, including the diocese’s headquarters and surrounding land on Lake Champlain in Burlington. Another $2 million is cash and short-term investments, and the rest is pledges and other money expected to be received.

(The diocese won’t say how much it is spending on lawyers dealing with the court cases and a state investigation of priest misconduct, just that bills are being paid from a $1.1 million self-insurance reserve.)

Although the Vermont diocese is named in four lawsuits in Chittenden Superior Court, the specifics of the Babeu case may make it easier for both sides to settle.

The New Yorker magazine embarrassed the church last year with a lengthy story about former Massachusetts priest Richard Lavigne, a convicted child molester who is charged with driving Babeu to northern Vermont to leave him alone with Paulin.

Babeu told this newspaper that family members reported the incident to then-Vermont Catholic Bishop John Marshall, who responded in a letter to them dated March 13, 1987: “I was disappointed and disturbed in learning about the allegations against” Paulin, “inasmuch as I have never heard any rumor, innuendo or complaint directly or indirectly that would indicate that he possessed pedophilic tendencies.”

Marshall wrote that he had discussed the report with Paulin and he had denied the allegations.

“Nevertheless, I shall remain vigilant with regard to his conduct,” Marshall wrote.

Babeu, however, heard nothing more for 16 years. Then Vermont’s Catholic diocese said last year it was placing Paulin on leave at the same time the state attorney general’s office began investigating decades of alleged priest misconduct.

Babeu has filed a separate lawsuit in Massachusetts against Lavigne and the diocese there. By settling in Vermont, the Diocese of Burlington would face one fewer high-profile case and Babeu could focus more on charges he is making in his home state (although the case against Paulin himself would continue).

Three other cases

The Archdiocese of Boston recently reached a tentative agreement with more than 500 accusers for a record $85 million, causing some to question if that settlement would spark others.

“Boston, frankly, does not have any real impact on our handling of cases and how we go about doing it,” O’Brien said.

Those filing the other Vermont court cases confirm that.

Lawyer Jerome O’Neill, a former federal prosecutor and current chairman of the Burlington Police Commission, says his phone started ringing in the early months of 2002, just as the press started reporting a longtime cover-up of child sexual abuse by Boston clergy.

O’Neill now represents two men who are suing the Diocese of Burlington. He says new Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley may have worked with accusers to settle his diocese’s cases, but Vermont church representatives have yet to seek out his clients.

“They haven’t shown any interest so far,” O’Neill said. “Their way of dealing with it is to drag it out as long as they can.”

O’Neill filed his first lawsuit on behalf of Michael Bernier, a 46-year-old California investment firm executive who alleges the Rev. James McShane, who resigned as a Rutland pastor this year, sexually abused him as a parochial school child in St. Albans.

Lawyers for the priest and the diocese have tried repeatedly to dismiss or delay the case since its filing in July 2002, at one point noting Vermont law at the time of the alleged abuse referred to a rape victim as “a female person,” so “since plaintiff is male, his alleged rape could not have violated” statute.

(The law has since been changed.)

Some 15 months after its filing, the case remains bogged in defense motions, the latest continuing to challenge a judge’s order of last December to share more than 50 years of files on all clergy misconduct.

O’Neill also is representing Robert Douglas II, a 37-year-old Burlington man who alleges the former Rev. Alfred Willis, no longer of Vermont, sexually abused and exploited him as a child at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Milton around 1979.

Douglas’ lawsuit charges the diocese had “actual knowledge” Willis was sexually abusing boys while at Burlington’s Christ the King parish, but transferred him to Milton rather than “investigate his well-known proclivities.” As a result, “Defendant Willis engaged in sexual abuse of young boys before, during and after his abuse of Plaintiff,” the lawsuit alleges.

In a fourth case, Ronald Ploof, a 44-year-old Colchester man, also is suing the Vermont diocese, saying he was an altar boy in Burlington when the Rev. Michael Madden sexually abused him in 1970.

Madden was convicted of lewd conduct with another minor in 1989. A jury awarded that victim $162,500 in damages before Madden died in 2000.

Ploof’s lawyer, Richard Holmes of Burlington, says the diocese hasn’t expressed interest in settling. He instead credits O’Neill, whose work has pushed the church to provide more documents to people suing.

“I can speak for our client — it helped us out tremendously,” Holmes said.

The Vermont diocese’s handling of cases frustrates at least one other lawyer. Peter Hutchins of Manchester, N.H., spurred the Catholic Church in his state to settle 86 clergy misconduct cases for a total of $8.1 million, with individuals receiving from $10,000 to $490,000. But when he called Vermont church leaders about a case here earlier this year, he received conflicting responses.

Hutchins said he first read “a nice letter” from Vermont Catholic Bishop Kenneth Angell “expressing the hope that we could resolve my client’s case as expeditiously as possible.” But O’Brien, as the diocese’s lawyer, said the settlement formula used in New Hampshire would prove too costly in Vermont, “repeating that the diocese does not have insurance,” Hutchins said.

(In New Hampshire, insurance covered only about $2 million of the settlement, leaving the diocese there to pay the rest from its unrestricted savings account and other reserves.)

Hutchins has grown so frustrated — as well as busy with New Hampshire abuse cases — he is referring all Vermont calls to O’Neill’s office in Burlington.

“Our settlement here, and hopefully the one to be finalized in Boston, really did go a long way to provide the victims with some degree of closure,” Hutchins said. “While the pain of what they went through can never be erased, by reaching out to our clients as the Diocese of Manchester did, it took away the stigma of being an ‘alleged victim’ and provided these people with the recognition and validation necessary to move on and try to heal themselves.”

The Vermont attorney general’s office has investigated allegations against eight recently practicing priests and 30 former colleagues. The state hasn’t charged anyone criminally, but only because the claims found credible are too old to prosecute under the state’s various statutes of limitations.

At his Burlington law office, O’Neill says he continues to receive calls about civil lawsuits.

“I’ve spoken with a number of people who have potential claims against the church.”

The church, for its part, will hold a “telephone listening opportunity” Oct. 14 for people who wish to talk about clergy misconduct. Diocesan counselors, priests and other personnel will take calls from 6 to 8 p.m. at 1-800-325-9533 for northern Vermonters or 1-800-851-8379 for southern Vermonters.

The diocese has set up a Misconduct Review Board of four lay people and two priests, adopted a code of conduct and background checks, and is taking part in an annual compliance audit by an outside organization hired by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The diocese says it is sincere in its desire to assist those abused, but it won’t pay settlement money simply because someone threatens a lawsuit.

“We try to deal fairly and fully with any plaintiff that comes forward,” O’Brien said, “but we have to look at diocesan resources as a whole.”

 
 

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