New Law Opens Door for Priest Abuse Lawsuits
By Gordon Dritschilo
August 27, 2019
As the Diocese of Burlington compiled its report on priest sex abuse cases, the state was moving to give more of the victims a path to hold the priests and church accountable.
This year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Phil Scott signed, a bill eliminating the statute of limitations on civil actions dealing with childhood sexual abuse. The new law took effect July 1, and a Burlington attorney who has represented several victims in successful actions against the church says he has filed five new lawsuits that were barred under the previous statute of limitations, possibly with more to come.
“There are a number of people whose claims had been barred by the statute of limitations who now feel they can come forward,” said Jerome O’Neill, who has represented more than 50 survivors of priest sexual abuse, winning them a combined total of more than $30 million. “We look at each case carefully.”
O’Neill said the five were filed on the day the new law took effect. While the alleged incidents took place all over Vermont, the cases were filed in Chittenden County civil court. He said they remain under seal until the diocese files a response or a motion to dismiss is denied.
One of the incidents was in Rutland, O’Neill said, involving the Rev. Conrad Bessette.
Bessette, according to the diocese report, was ordained in Winooski in 1973 and moved from Barre to Springfield to St. Albans before arriving at Rutland’s Christ the King Church in 1976, where he would serve until 1983. The latter part of Bessette’s career, according to the report, was characterized by frequent moves, going from Burlington to Newport, then Graniteville and then finally to Milton, where the report indicates he was relieved of his duties in 1990 by Bishop John Marshall.
Bessette’s public priestly faculties were revoked in 2004, and he was laicized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. The report lists him as still living.
Two of the lawsuits stem from alleged incidents in Washington County, including one in which O’Neill said the victim was abused by two different priests in the same parish.
“It’s happened several times in cases I’ve represented,” O’Neill said.
That case involves the Rev. Edward Paquette, who was at Christ the King two years before Bessette and then went on to St. Augustine in Montpelier, where he served from 1975 to 1976. He was succeeded there by the Rev. Alfred Willis, who is named alongside Paquette in one lawsuit and by himself in another.
O’Neill said the diocese should have come to grips with the issue much sooner, and that Bishop Marshall should have been prosecuted.
“You find the word ‘scandal’ in documents pertaining to this,” he said. “You find no references to protecting the children.”
The statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of most sex crimes involving minors remains 40 years.