Diocese Attorney in Priest Abuse Case Withdraws

By Sam Hemingway
Free Press [Burlington]
November 22, 2006

A longtime attorney for the statewide Roman Catholic diocese has withdrawn from the team of lawyers representing the church in a priest sex abuse case pending in Chittenden Superior Court.

William O'Brien, legal counsel to the diocese for more than 16 years, notified the court Monday that he was withdrawing from the litigation because he could not adequately represent the diocese in the face of misconduct claims being leveled at him by Jerome O'Neill, the lawyer for the alleged victim in the case.

"The unfortunate and personal attacks by plaintiff's counsel ... have made it increasingly difficult for me to properly represent my client," O'Brien wrote in his withdrawal notice.

O'Neill, in an interview Tuesday, disputed O'Brien's reasons for withdrawing.

"That withdrawal motion was something drawn up by his lawyer to try to give him a face-saving basis for getting out of this case," O'Neill said. "It's something he should have done years ago."

The withdrawal came as the court was preparing for a hearing today on whether O'Brien should face sanctions, or a court-imposed punishment, for allegedly concealing church documents the diocese was required to share with O'Neill.

O'Neill, in his court filings, has cited instances where he said O'Brien "willfully" hid church documents or ignored requests by O'Neill to find paperwork that O'Neill had a right to see.

"By his actions, he has delayed the trial in this case for six months," O'Neill said of O'Brien's conduct. "That has been a living hell for my client. It has been extremely difficult having him live with this hanging over him and not get resolved."

O'Neill said as punishment he will ask Judge Ben Joseph to impose a default verdict in favor of the victim in the case and convene a hearing to determine how much the diocese and O'Brien should pay out in damages.

The case, among 25 priest abuse cases pending at the court, involves allegations that the Rev. George Paulin sexually molested a former altar boy in Newport in the early 1970s. The Burlington Free Press as a matter of policy does not identify the alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

O'Brien did not respond to a request for an interview Tuesday. In a memorandum filed with the court by his attorney, Ritchie Berger, O'Brien claimed his small office staff was overwhelmed with the volume of documents involved in the cases and did the best it could.

"Inadvertent human errors happen in litigation," Berger wrote. "The delays and mistakes that occurred in this case, although regretted, have not caused plaintiff any harm or prejudice."

At a status hearing on the case Tuesday, Berger questioned whether Joseph could remain impartial during today's sanctions hearing after Joseph declared during an October status hearing that "wrongdoing" had occurred with regard to the timely production of documents.

"Yes, I think there was wrongdoing," Joseph responded, adding, "but I took great pains to make no conclusion as to who was responsible for it."

Berger, asked later if he would seek to have Joseph removed as the presiding judge for today's sanctions hearing, declined comment.

Besides O'Brien, the diocese is represented in the abuse cases by Rutland lawyer David Cleary and, more recently, Burlington lawyer Tom McCormick.

Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or e-mail at shemingway@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.