Diocese Lawsuits, Deficit Climb
By Kevin O'Connor
Rutland Herald [Vermont]
February 4, 2007
When Vermont's Catholic Church settled the first of a string of priest misconduct lawsuits for almost $1 million last spring, parishioners questioned how quickly — and at what cost — the diocese would resolve the rest of the cases.
A year later, they're still wondering.
The state's largest religious denomination, which faced 16 more cases after last April's record $965,000 settlement, has seen the number rise to 26. A diocesan deficit of $127,947 at the start of the last fiscal year has ballooned tenfold because of the lawsuits. And a longtime church lawyer has just launched a third attempt to disqualify the judge who is hearing the cases.
It was five years ago this month that the statewide Diocese of Burlington, shortly after news of a clergy misconduct scandal hit Boston, received complaints that several of its priests had sexually abused children.
The Vermont church said it would investigate. So did state Attorney General William Sorrell, who told the diocese in February 2002 that he wanted to see its personnel files. But Sorrell didn't receive anything for three months, and then only after he publicly voiced disapproval with the diocese for not turning over its records.
Five years later, more than two dozen men and at least one woman have civil lawsuits pending against the diocese and nine of its priests. The accusers, who filed their charges in Chittenden Superior Court as long as three years ago, don't understand why it's taking so much time and so many motions to bring their cases to trial.
The diocese says it's just looking for justice.
"I certainly don't think it's ethical for me to deny my client the right to have issues reviewed in the interest of due process," church lawyer David Cleary of Rutland says. "This is taking its normal course. The normal time to trial is somewhere between two to three years after a suit is filed."
But accusers believe the church has stalled ever since news of the scandal broke.
"The diocese claims to care, but as far as my clients are concerned, actions speak louder than words," says Burlington lawyer Jerome O'Neill, who is representing all 26 plaintiffs. "The diocese has no interest in getting these cases resolved promptly. It uses any procedural mechanism that will slow a case down."
The Vermont church acknowledged complaints about priest misconduct in February 2002 but didn't take action until that May, when it gave the state its files on six active priests — all unnamed but placed on leave — and more than a dozen retired clergymen.
The attorney general determined all the misconduct, dating back as far as five decades, occurred after the state's statutes of limitations for criminal prosecution had run out. But accusers can press charges through civil lawsuits and began to do so in June 2002.
The diocese settled at least four cases for a total of nearly $400,000 by 2004 — a year capped by a then-record $150,000 payment to end what the church thought was the last lawsuit.
But that settlement was merely the beginning. As part of the $150,000 agreement, the diocese admitted it knew at least one priest had faced sexual misconduct charges as early as seminary but was transferred repeatedly to unsuspecting parishes, even after the Vatican was asked to defrock him upon determination he was guilty of child abuse.
That unprecedented admission sparked a second round of lawsuits. The church settled the first of those cases for $965,000 last April, just hours before trial and just after O'Neill said he had evidence of more than a dozen church letters confirming problems with pedophilia and was ready to ask a jury for up to $5 million in damages.
At the time, church leaders said they were open to settling the rest of the lawsuits if they could agree to affordable terms that wouldn't cut into funding for the diocese's 128 parishes and 118,000 members.
"I want to be sensitive to victims, but I don't want to inflict pain on innocent parishioners," Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano said last spring.
But since then, the number of lawsuits has only increased, while lawyers with ties to the diocese have filed two unsuccessful motions to disqualify the judge who presided over the record settlement and is hearing the next two cases.
In the first of those lawsuits, Neil Morrissette, 47, alleges that the Rev. George Paulin, 63, sexually abused him when he was a 13-year-old member of Newport's St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in 1971.
That trial was supposed to start last September. After a series of delays, the case now is scheduled to be heard in March, although lawyers acknowledge they're talking about a possible settlement.
The Morrissette lawsuit, filed in 2004, is a good example of how complicated a case can grow. Judge Ben Joseph began by asking church lawyer William M. O'Brien of Winooski to share the priest's personnel records with the accuser and his attorney. Shortly thereafter, O'Brien handed over a stack of paperwork, saying "this was all … the diocese had at this time."
But Morrissette didn't receive anything from the years 1971 to 1997. Last summer, his lawyer accused the church of withholding 27 years of records. Last fall, the diocese produced the remaining paperwork with an explanation that the information had been misfiled and had just been found.
Joseph ordered a hearing, saying, "I think there's been some wrongdoing here, but I don't know who did it. And I don't know the scope of it, and I don't know how serious it is in the context of the case. I haven't made any decisions with that regard."
But O'Brien, focused on the word "wrongdoing," believed the judge already had made up his mind about the situation. On the morning of the hearing last November, the church lawyer stopped the proceedings by filing a motion to bar Joseph from considering sanctions.
State Administrative Judge Amy Davenport denied that request last month. But O'Brien filed a motion last week asking her to reconsider Joseph's disqualification, saying the basis of her latest decision was "simply wrong."
O'Neill, speaking for the plaintiffs, says the church's collective motions have delayed the trials by months.
"It prolongs the agony of the victims," O'Neill says. "They can't understand why the diocese doesn't want to resolve the cases."
The church's problems aren't confined to the past. In addition to the 26 civil lawsuits, the diocese is following the case of the Rev. Stephen J. Nichols, a 47-year-old priest who faces a felony charge of lewd and lascivious conduct for allegedly fondling a naked 18-year-old man in 2005. That case, brought to Franklin District Court in St. Albans by the state attorney general's office, is on track to go to trial in April.
The church also is suing its former insurer in U.S. District Court in Burlington in hopes of recovering legal fees and settlement costs for alleged abuse that took place in the 1970s.
The diocese doesn't have insurance for priest misconduct, but says it held a comprehensive liability policy with the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. from 1973 to 1978. The church can't find its copy of the policy, however, so it has taken the insurer to court in hopes the company will unearth the paperwork and pay for the church's legal fees and settlement costs.
The former insurer, known as USF&G, is now part of the St. Paul Travelers Companies of St. Paul, Minn. It has agreed to pay the diocese's legal fees for all pending cases whose allegations took place during the policy period. But the insurer says it shouldn't have to cover settlement costs if it can prove the church knew of past misconduct but continued to employ an offending priest.
The insurer now is examining church records to see what the diocese knew. The church, for its part, hopes the court will rule on all contested matters by spring.
The diocese could use the money. It reports a deficit of $1.3 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30 — most of that representing a loan covering the record $965,000 settlement.
The bishop, in a report to parishioners, noted "no funds intended for charitable or ministerial services" have been used to pay for settlements.
"While these cases date back many years, and in several instances decades ago, we must now deal effectively with these very sad and disturbing circumstances, seeking always to do what is right, just and charitable for all parties concerned," Matano wrote.
Contact Kevin O'Connor at email@example.com.
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