|Juror: Abuse Case Award 'Justified'
By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
May 18, 2008
A juror in the just-concluded clergy abuse trial says the overwhelming amount of evidence against the state's Roman Catholic diocese more than justified the $8.7 million awarded in damages to the plaintiff in the case.
"We expected more of a defense," said Christopher Tall of Essex Junction, a 47-year-old engineer. "There was a lot of disparity between the plaintiff's evidence and the defense's evidence. I guess one thing the diocese was good at was keeping records, unfortunately for them."
The case involved claims by a former Christ the King Church altar boy that he was molested by the Rev. Edward Paquette between 40 and 100 times between 1976 and 1978.
Lawyers for the plaintiff, now 40, used a number of church documents to show the diocese knew Paquette had molested boys at parishes in Massachusetts, Indiana, and Vermont before the molestations in Burlington but had chosen to continue to employ Paquette.
Tall said there was no strong division among the 12 jurors about the milestone decisions they were making and that they got along well.
"There were never real holdouts," he said. "We had very open discussions. We had gotten to know each other over the six days of the trial, and we felt we could talk openly with each other."
He also said that no mathematical formula was used to decide how much money to award the plaintiff.
"We kind of had to find a number that felt like it was punitive," he said of the $7.75 million punitive damage figure. "If it was under what it should be, the defendant would say 'Whoo, boy, we dodged that ball. There's no pressure or incentive not to do this again.' It was better to err on the high side."
The $8.7 million award included $950,000 in compensatory damages in addition to the $7.75 million in punitive damages. Tall said the jury did not know that another former altar boy molested by Paquette received a $965,000 out-of-court settlement from the church in 2006.
Last week's verdict has drawn sharp criticism from diocesan lawyer Tom McCormick, who said the diocese should not have been punished for mistakes made 30 or more years ago. However, he said that he thought the jury was attentive and thoughtful.
"I was disappointed in their decision but not in the process," McCormick said.
Bishop Salvatore Matano said after the verdict was announced that he was concerned about what the damage award would do to the diocese.
"I have to look very seriously at what this verdict means as it impacts on our services and the activities of the diocese," Matano said. "I have to be very conscious that the verdict as it stands will have a very serious impact on a rural diocese, a small rural diocese."
Matano has subsequently declined to comment on the matter. Late last week, the plaintiff sought and obtained a $10.26 million lien on the diocese's sprawling headquarters property on Burlington's North Avenue. The diocese plans to appeal the jury verdict.
Tall said the jury would have liked more information about the diocese's recent efforts to protect children in parishes and elsewhere from potential sexual predators, but said it was impossible to know if having that knowledge would have affected the panel's decision.
"We expected to hear more about what they were doing now, but we didn't hear that," he said.
Judge Matthew Katz told the jury at one point during the trial that information about the diocese's current programs was not relevant to the question of determining how the diocese hired and supervised Paquette.
Tall said the jury relied on Katz's carefully worded instructions as its guide for reaching conclusions. "I don't mind saying that it was clear to us what to do as we followed the judge's charge to us," he said.
McCormick said Tall's remark about the jury's closely following Katz's instructions was good news for him because the diocese intends to focus on those instructions as the basis of its appeal of the verdict.
He said the diocese took particular issue with Katz's decision to permit the jury to consider punitive damages and for removing from the jury's consideration the question of whether the lawsuit was filed too late.
Jerome O'Neill, a lawyer for the plaintiff, declined comment on Tall's statements.
Tall was the only juror contacted by The Burlington Free Press who agreed to publicly discuss how the panel deliberated on the case.
Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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