Diocese Settles 11 Priest Sex Abuse Cases in Burlington Federal Court
By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
January 10, 2013
|Ed Paquette, a former Roman Catholic priest in Vermont, is seen in this undated photo from his time in the priesthood. He later retired, moved to Westfield, Mass., and years later was defrocked by the Vatican. / Courtesy photo|
The state’s Roman Catholic diocese agreed Wednesday to settle 11 more priest sexual abuse cases, a move that may finally close a painful — and costly — chapter in the church’s history in Vermont.
The settlement was disclosed Wednesday morning by lawyers for both the diocese and the alleged victims of clerical sex abuse moments before a trial on one of the cases was set to get under way at U.S. District Court in Burlington.
“We settled it,” Jerome O’Neill, the lead attorney for the alleged victims in the cases, said outside the courtroom. “It was a negotiation that had been going on for a long time and the diocese this morning accepted our demand and agreed to pay it.”
O’Neill said he received a phone call from Tom McCormick, a lawyer for the diocese, at 9:30 a.m., advising him that the diocese had agreed to settle the case in federal court and 10 more pending in Chittenden Superior Court. The federal court trial was set to start at 10 a.m.
At the diocese’s request, O’Neill declined to reveal the settlement amount, but it is likely to be in the millions of dollars. McCormick said the settlement was approved after the diocese reached an agreement settling a separate lawsuit with its insurer.
“The bishop, in consultation with his board of advisors, authorized the settlement,” McCormick said. The diocese issued a statement later Wednesday that said the settlement would not affect its charitable operations.
“In arriving at this settlement, the Diocese wishes to assure the faithful that all monies raised for charitable purposes, including the annual Bishop’s Fund Appeal, have not been used to meet the financial responsibility incurred from this and previous settlements,” the statement said.
McCormick said paying the latest settlement will not be easy for the diocese, but was a better solution than facing a trial on the abuse claims.
“It will have an adverse effect,” he said of the settlement. “But if the trial had gone badly it would have had a crippling effect. If the trial had gone badly, then the diocese might well have ended up in bankruptcy.”
The case in federal court involved claims by a man who, as a 12 year-old boy, said he was fondled two or three times by the Rev. Edward Paquette in Rutland in 1974. The first molestation occurred at Christ the King Church as the youth was undergoing training to be an altar boy, court documents said.
The man now lives in California. The Burlington Free Press does not publish the names of alleged victims of sexual abuse without their permission.
“He is relieved to have this behind him,” O’Neill said of his client. “He never wanted to have to try this case, but he was willing to do it if the diocese did not treat him fairly.”
Nine of the 11 cases settled Wednesday involved alleged abuse by Paquette of altar boys between 1972 and 1978, when he was banished by the diocese after parents of altar boys at Christ the King Church in Burlington complained to then Bishop John Marshall about Paquette’s conduct.
Paquette, who now lives in Westfield, Mass., was not a named defendant in any of the abuse cases.
The lawsuits instead targeted the diocese, contending it knew Paquette already had a history of molesting boys when it hired him but still put him in situations where he had access to young boys.
The diocese did not dispute the abuse occurred but said it had relied on psychologist reports at the time that pronounced Paquette cured of his sexual deviancy. It has also argued that the victims waited too long to file their lawsuits.
Wednesday’s multi-case settlement was the second of its kind reached by the diocese in three years. In 2010, the diocese agreed to pay $17.6 million to settle 26 lawsuits alleging molestation of children by priests; 19 of the lawsuits identified Paquette as the alleged molester.
Four of the Paquette cases that had earlier gone to trial resulted in multimillion-dollar verdicts that were reduced as part of the 2010 agreement.
O’Neill said his law firm had represented 60 alleged victims of priest sexual abuse in the past decade.
“I wish there was never any abuse," O’Neill said. “I wish the cases never existed, but since they did exist for these survivors of the abuse, we were honored to represent them.”
He also said he expects the 11 cases settled Wednesday will be the last ones involving decades-old abuse to be brought against the diocese. That’s because the six-year statute of limitations for such lawsuits, based on a key court ruling made in 2006, has run out.
“Anyone who makes a claim now will find it very difficult if not impossible to get past the statute of limitations,” O‘Neill said.
McCormick tentatively agreed.
“I hope this is it,” he said. “It would be a great thing for everyone if this is behind us, if the healing can truly begin.”
The diocese, in its statement “reiterated its deep regret for the hurt the plaintiffs experienced, and offered prayers for the plaintiffs, and for all victims of sexual abuse, hopeful that they will bless the Church once again with their presence among the Church community.”
McCormick said resolving the abuse claims, by trial or through out-of-court settlements, presented difficult challenges for the diocese. That was especially so after it sold its expansive headquarters on North Avenue and its lakeshore Camp Holy Cross site in Colchester to help fund the 2010 settlement.
“We had no alternative but to take some of these claims to court,” he said. “The larger dioceses were able to fund their settlements with the assets they had. We weren’t as rich as they are.”