17 Abuse Suits Filed against Vermont Diocese
First Trial Set for Day after Easter
By Kevin O'Connor
April 2, 2006
Leaders of Vermont's Catholic Church face a daunting question: Do they settle 17 new priest misconduct lawsuits for up to $1 million, or do they try to fight the charges in a string of headline-grabbing trials set to start the day after Easter?
Burlington attorney Jerome O'Neill has filed civil lawsuits in Chittenden Superior Court on behalf of 17 clients, charging five former Vermont priests with child sexual abuse.
O'Neill, chairman of the Burlington Police Commission and a former federal prosecutor, has a track record of winning cases against the church. The lawyer compelled the diocese to settle one similar case in 2004 for a $150,000 cash payment — the largest such agreement in state history — and another the same year for $120,000.
The church, having seen the nearby Boston Archdiocese pay more than $85 million to settle its own sex-abuse lawsuits, hoped it had seen the last of O'Neill. But the latest round of Vermont cases promises to dwarf the publicity and payoffs sparked by the four previous lawsuits he has settled with the diocese in the past decade.
Twelve of the 17 current lawsuits involve child sexual abuse charges against Edward Paquette, a former priest who worked in Burlington, Montpelier and Rutland from 1972 to 1978.
The first case, set for jury selection April 17, charges that Paquette "sexually abused and sexually exploited" Michael Gay, now 38, when the Vermonter was an altar boy from ages 10 to 12 at Christ the King Catholic Church in Burlington.
Court paperwork limits description of the allegations to "unper-mitted, harmful and offensive sexual contact" and seeks financial damages "in an amount deemed appropriate by the jury."
O'Neill says a court gag order restricts him from talking to the press.
"The judge is concerned about pretrial publicity," he said, "so I don't think I can tell you anything."
The lawyer, however, has spoken in the past. A 2004 Boston Herald article written before the gag order not only reported Paquette was accused of molesting "hundreds of boys" in Massachusetts, but also quoted the Vermont prosecutor about cases in this state.
"He was doing it with virtually every altar boy he could literally get his hands on," O'Neill said, according to the Boston paper.
Paquette hasn't faced criminal charges in either state because his alleged misconduct came to light after court deadlines for filing a prosecution. But Massachusetts church officials expressed concern about the priest more than four decades ago, court documents show.
"I can hardly return him to active duty in this diocese," Bishop James Connolly of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., wrote in a 1964 letter to a colleague. "If he has honestly told you his story you will recognize it as serious with inevitable elements of scandal."
"It would be well," the bishop wrote in a second letter the same year, "to keep him out of responsibility for young people, boys especially."
Paquette, however, went on to minister in Indiana — where church leaders acknowledge receiving sexual misconduct complaints — and then Vermont. The charges against the priest in this state are so sexually explicit that one accuser, a Washington County man, is listed only as "John Doe" in court papers. He alleges Paquette assaulted him at St. Augustine's Church in Montpelier as many as 50 times from ages 10 to 12 in the 1970s.
The priest, now 77 and retired in Massachusetts, hung up when phoned by a reporter. The diocese's lawyer, David Cleary of Rutland, cited the gag order in declining to comment on the cases or whether the diocese was trying to settle them.
"I don't think it's appropriate to make any comment in view of the pending trial," Cleary said.
The Vermont church has fought the release of any documents about the cases, stating it "will cause irreparable harm to the diocese and other individuals," Cleary has written in court papers.
The case filed by Michael Gay is the only one so far scheduled for trial, although court paperwork shows the judge is working to consider the remaining 11 lawsuits against Paquette, one after another, over the coming months.
O'Neill also has filed one case each involving former Vermont priests James Dunn, 76; James McShane, 65; and George Paulin, 62; and two cases against Alfred Willis, 61.
None of the priests could be reached for comment.
The latest round of lawsuits comes four 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 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.
In 2003 and 2004, the diocese paid:
The Willis case also prompted the diocese to release an unprecedented written statement. Vermont church leaders admitted they knew the priest had faced sexual misconduct charges as early as his time in seminary, but transferred him repeatedly without telling parishioners of his problematic history, even when it asked the Vatican to defrock him after determining he was guilty of child abuse.
O'Neill will have plenty of church records to cite if his latest case goes to trial in two weeks. Last fall, Judge Ben Joseph ordered the state attorney general's office to give O'Neill most of its findings, stating "the release of these materials to the plaintiff is clearly in the 'public interest.'"
The documents include transcripts of interviews with people claiming priest misconduct; correspondence between the attorney general's office, the diocese and clergy; and church personnel files obtained by the state during its ongoing investigation of sexual abuse charges spanning a half century.
The attorney general's office had argued that much of the material sought was privileged, confidential or "extraordinarily sensitive." Joseph replied that he was "sympathetic," but added "individuals chose to share their information with the (office) knowing that their identities could be revealed if there was a criminal prosecution."
"It is unlikely that the disclosure of these documents will greatly chill the incentive for victims of abuse to speak with law enforcement," the judge added. "Indeed, it is more likely the disclosure to a civil plaintiff will have the effect of encouraging people to come forward once they learn that it is possible that persons responsible for sexual abuse who have not been criminally prosecuted can be held accountable in a civil proceeding."
And that, the diocese fears, could mean this latest round of lawsuits may not be the last.
The diocese doesn't have insurance for such cases and therefore must pay for settlements with money and other assets on hand. Church leaders stress they aren't using regular collection money or the diocesan Bishop's Fund, but instead are tapping a separate specific account designed for unforeseen circumstances. The church hasn't reported the amount of that account or the cost of its legal fees.
Vermont isn't the only diocese dealing with priest misconduct questions. The Boston Archdiocese just agreed to pay 88 new accusers an average of $75,000 each (down from the $153,000 average it gave an initial group of 540 accusers three years ago). And the Los Angeles Archdiocese has tentatively agreed to pay more than $28 million to 25 people who charge they were molested by Franciscan friars.
According to the Vermont diocese, more than 30 people have reported credible charges against at least 25 of its priests in the past five decades, with all alleged 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 in 2002 and reinstated the same year after review by the attorney general.
The Vermont church is among the 11.5 percent of the nation's dioceses that have yet to fully comply with all provisions of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" adopted by U.S. bishops four years ago, an independent report said Thursday.
The diocese is still working on "safe environment training," having completed programs in all 17 of its Catholic schools and hoping to finish in the state's 130 parishes by June 30. It also is reviewing its criminal background checks on all its employees, having conducted more than 1,300 reviews on staff and volunteers, including clergy, teachers, coaches and chaperones.
Contact Kevin O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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