Abuse Lawsuits Seek Liens on Church Property

By Kevin O'Connor
Times Argus [Vermont]
July 31, 2005

The statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington faces at least 10 priest misconduct lawsuits seeking liens on church property that could total up to $30 million.

Jerome O'Neill, chairman of the Burlington Police Commission and a former federal prosecutor, compelled the diocese to settle one case last year for a $150,000 cash payment the largest such agreement in state history and another for $120,000.

Now O'Neill has filed civil lawsuits in Burlington's Chittenden Superior Court on behalf of 10 more clients charging four former Vermont priests with child sexual abuse. The lawyer's past cases didn't request specific dollar amounts in damages. But this time, at least three lawsuits are seeking liens on church property one for $4.5 million, two others for $2.5 million each.

"We expect to seek attachments in the $2.5 million range in all of the cases we have filed, for a total of around $30 million," O'Neill says.

If successful, O'Neill's clients wouldn't receive specific properties but instead a legal claim on church holdings if the diocese couldn't pay court judgments otherwise. The diocese doesn't have insurance for such cases and therefore must pay for settlements with money and other assets on hand.

"We believe the information we have is sufficiently compelling that seven-figure verdicts are quite likely," O'Neill says. "We want to make sure that there are sufficient assets available if we are successful in our actions. The diocese doesn't have insurance, but it has $65 mil-lion of appraised property in the city of Burlington alone."

The latest round of lawsuits come three years after state Attorney General William Sorrell launched an investigation against almost a dozen recently practicing Vermont Catholic priests and 30 former clergymen. Sorrell 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.

Accusers, however, can press charges through civil lawsuits. The diocese has spent almost $400,000 in the past two years to settle at least four previous lawsuits out of court. Church leaders stress they aren't paying settlements with regular collection money or the diocesan Bishop's Fund but instead from a separate account designed for unforeseen circumstances.

"The position of the diocese remains the same: to evaluate the appropriateness of compensation to those who have been harmed when the good faith of their claim is ascertained," says the diocese's lawyer, David Cleary of Rutland. "We're attempting to determine the merits of each individual claim."

In the meantime, the diocese has filed court papers against O'Neill's request for liens on property.

Six of the 10 latest cases involve Edward Paquette, a former priest who worked in Burlington, Montpelier and Rutland from 1972 to 1978. The lawsuit seeking a $4.5 million lien is so sexually explicit that the accuser, a Washington County man, is listed only as "John Doe" in court papers. He alleges Paquette assaulted him in the sacristy of St. Augustine's Church in Montpelier as many as 50 times between the ages of 10 and 12.

"Paquette was a serial abuser," O'Neill says. "We expect to file three or four more cases involving him."

The priest, now 76 and retired in Massachusetts, hung up when phoned by a reporter. The Catholic Diocese of Fall River, Mass., has named Paquette as one of 20 of its former priests facing credible accusations of sexual abuse but whose cases were too old to prosecute.

O'Neill also has filed one case each against former Vermont priests James Dunn, age unknown, and George Paulin, 62, and two against Alfred Willis, 61. The diocese already has paid $20,000 to settle another case against Paulin, a former Ludlow pastor who also worked in the state's Northeast Kingdom; and a record $150,000 in another case against Willis, a former priest in Burlington, Milton and Montpelier.

Although O'Neill has submitted his paperwork, Chittenden Superior Court is legally obligated to give defendants time to respond before making all files available to the public.

But both the cases against Paquette and Willis charge the diocese knew the priests had a history of sexually assaulting boys but did nothing to stop the abuse. As a result, one lawsuit charges, "Alfred Willis sexually abused a young boy for his own pleasures, leaving that boy with lifetime psychological scars."

Willis, now of Virginia, did not return a reporter's call seeking comment.

According to the diocese, more than 30 people have reported credible charges against at least 25 priests in the past five decades, with all alleged sexual misconduct occurring before 1989. All but one of the clergy have died, resigned, retired or aren't allowed to practice publicly. One priest was placed on leave and reinstated, both in 2002, after review by the attorney general.