|Priest Set to Change Plea in Abuse Case Monday
By Kevin O'Connor
Rutland Herald [Vermont]
April 27, 2007
A Vermont priest placed on leave after saying he was not guilty of a felony charge of lewd and lascivious conduct is scheduled to appear in court Monday to change his plea.
The Rev. Stephen J. Nichols, 47, is set to appear in Franklin District Court in St. Albans in regard to allegations by the state attorney general's office that he fondled a naked 18-year-old man after taking him to Canada and buying him beer.
In a court hearing last September, Nichols pleaded innocent, saying in paperwork that his accuser — a St. Johnsbury man identified only by his initials — "was the sexual aggressor and afterwards asked for money to keep quiet."
But Nichols — scheduled to go on trial May 9 in the only felony misconduct case against a current Vermont priest — has requested a change-of-plea hearing, set for Monday at 1 p.m.
Nichols and his lawyer, Mark Kaplan of Burlington, and Assistant Attorney General Cindy J. Maguire could not be reached for comment Thursday. But court representatives confirmed that, if convicted by a jury, Nichols would face a prison sentence of up to five years.
In court papers, the unidentified accuser said the priest took him to a pool hall in Cowansville, Quebec, in April 2005 and bought them at least two pitchers of beer. The young man said he vomited at least twice on the way back to Nichols' home about 20 miles south in the Franklin County town of Richford. Once there, the priest reportedly told him to take a shower, at which time he repeatedly touched the naked teenager.
The statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington hired a private investigator upon hearing of the allegations two years ago. That investigator told the attorney general's office that he had found the accuser to be "calm, straightforward and credible in his account of what had happened."
Nichols, who has served as director of the Vermont Catholic Church's lay ministry training program, is on a leave of absence as pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Lyndonville and Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Danville pending the outcome of the case.
In addition to the felony case, Vermont's Catholic Church faces 25 civil misconduct lawsuits in Chittenden Superior Court against eight retired priests.
The state's largest religious denomination already has spent more than $1.5 million to settle at least six other civil misconduct lawsuits out of court. Church leaders stress they aren't paying settlements with regular collection money or the diocesan Bishop's Fund but from loans and other sources. As a result, the diocese reported a deficit of $1.3 million for the fiscal year that ended this past June 30.
Contact Kevin O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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