One priest: How a Vermont cleric kept abusing children

By Kevin O'connor
September 30, 2019

The now defrocked priest Edward Paquette.

The Rev. Edward Paquette in a snapshot taken by a relative of a boy he sexually abused.

John Marshall served as Vermont Catholic bishop from 1972 to 1992.

The Rev. Edward Paquette’s third and final Vermont assignment was at Burlington’s Christ the King Church in 1976.
Photo by Kevin O’Connor

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series on the Vermont Catholic Church’s hidden history of clergy abusing children. Part 1, “One boy,” offers the perspective of a survivor. Part 2, “One priest,” reveals how the state’s most problematic cleric stayed on the job. Part 3, “One diocese,” reports on the collective past and current attempts to acknowledge and atone for it.

The personnel file of the former Rev. Edward Paquette, hidden by Vermont’s Catholic Church for nearly a half-century, contains a startling confession as to why leaders expelled the most problematic priest in the history in the state’s largest religious denomination.

“No longer could keep lid on things,” a 1978 internal memo says.

But a rare look at the records shows that’s not the biggest surprise.

“My name is Father Edward Paquette,” the cleric wrote in a 1972 introductory letter to the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. “I am requesting of you to serve my priestly ministry.”

The Massachusetts native said he had been a priest for 15 years, was working in the Midwest and wanted to move back east to be closer to his aging parents. Almost as an aside, he added: “I did have problems but received medical treatment, and I am now cured.”

Paquette didn’t say his problem was sexually abusing boys.

Arriving in Vermont three months later, the priest was assigned to a parish in Rutland in 1972, only to continue molesting minors as he was transferred to Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.

“Despite the demands of two sets of irate parents that ‘something be done about this,’ Father Paquette’s pastor and I are determined to take the risk of leaving him in his present assignment,” then Vermont Catholic Bishop John Marshall wrote a colleague just before more complaints led to the priest’s termination in 1978. “Our thinking is that, knowing the awareness of others concerning his problem, Father Paquette will have reason for ‘self-control.’”

A quarter-century later, more than 30 Vermonters began filing civil lawsuits against the diocese for negligence in hiring and supervising the cleric they accuse of molesting them.

Paquette, now 90 and retired in Massachusetts, was one of 40 Vermont priests recently named by a lay-led church committee investigating child sexual abuse by clergy over the past seven decades.

In a separate action, VTDigger has secured and studied Paquette’s full personnel file. Amid dozens of records and reports, the folder reveals one unsettling fact: Vermont Catholic leaders knew of the priest’s problems before they hired him and let him go — without alerting the public or police — only after accumulating hundreds of pages of evidence of child sexual abuse.

‘Believe me and do what you can’

Paquette first expressed interest in serving as a priest as a college junior in 1951. But applying to several parishes in his home state of Massachusetts, he wasn’t immediately accepted.

“He did apply here in Springfield,” that city’s bishop wrote a colleague in 1953, “but after careful study of his case it was seen fit to give him a negative answer. We did not feel that he quite measured up to the standards that we had set.”

Seminary reports showed Paquette to be “of mediocre intelligence” and “nervous and tense” but with unspecified “compensating qualities” — enough that the Diocese of Fall River ordained him in 1957.

Paquette signed an oath noting “I clearly understand the import of the law of celibacy.” But the priest broke that vow repeatedly, spurring his supervisors to assign him to three Massachusetts churches over six years.

“In January of 1963, he told me that his two transfers to other parishes were the result of trouble with boys,” a church leader wrote in the first of many such letters in Paquette’s personnel file. “A few days before he had been picked up by the police while parked with a teenaged boy. He was held in the station until the arrival of his pastor, but was not booked.”

Paquette’s clergical career appeared to be over.

“For reasons of a most grave nature and the attending scandal, I am bound to notify you, by these presents, that you no longer possess faculties in the Diocese of Fall River,” then Bishop James Connolly wrote Paquette Jan. 18, 1963. “You must certainly appreciate the fact that you are liable to prosecution, under the laws of the state of Massachusetts. Such a thing, should it happen, could only result in your loss of all possibility for priestly ministry.”

But no one ever pressed criminal charges against the priest. The next year, despite written warnings sent to Midwest church leaders by their Massachusetts peers, Paquette went on to minister in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.

“I have strongly fought this ‘problem’ and think that I have succeeded,” Paquette wrote the bishop there in 1964.

A year later, the Indiana diocese learned the priest once again had failed.

“My son, 13 years old, has been immorally approached,” a mother wrote in an anonymous letter to church leaders June 22, 1965. “He came home from school and told me that Father Paquette had ordered and received tickets to a stage play in Chicago and wanted my son to go. I thought it was so nice until I looked at my son’s face. He had the strangest look and said, ‘I don’t want to go.’”

“I realized then that something was very wrong and asked him to tell me,” the mother continued. “He told me about three different times he had been asked by Father Paquette to do immoral acts. I could hardly believe that my son was the kind of boy to agree to do such a thing but he said Father kept saying, ‘Trust in me, God makes allowances for this.’”

“He told me of three other boys that said Father Paquette touches them,” the mother continued. “My husband was going right over to the rectory and knock him to a pulp but I finally had to convince him for his son’s sake and also for the sake of the parish — we do not need a scandal … this is not a crank letter, believe me and do what you can.”

The Indiana diocese transferred Paquette from one parish to a second and later a third, only to have the abuse continue.

“In view of the fact that I have given you three opportunities and warned you each time,” Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Leo Pursley wrote Paquette May 18, 1971, “I have no choice but to ask you now to seek another bishop willing, as I was, to give you an assignment.”

The Indiana diocese relieved Paquette of his duties. But it didn’t tell the public he had numerous misconduct allegations against him until it released a diocese-wide report last fall — a half-century later.

‘The dossier is large and the history long’

Within months, Paquette was penning letters to bishops throughout the north and east.

“I am prayerfully requesting to serve my priestly ministry in your diocese,” he wrote.

Indiana church leaders typed the same response to colleagues seeking information about Paquette.

“The dossier is large and the history long,” it began.

The Fort Wayne-South Bend bishop, noting “homosexual episodes involving young boys,” suggested the priest be assigned to an “institutional chaplaincy” rather than a community church so Paquette could minister “with less likelihood of relapse.”

“It would be natural to ask: Why, then, do I not keep him?” the Indiana bishop continued. “The territory is not large enough to provide another assignment and the risk of scandal is thus aggravated.”

Most churches passed on Paquette.

“We are currently engaged in dealing with one of our own priests whose record parallels exactly that of Father Paquette,” the Diocese of Rochester, New York, wrote Indiana leaders. “If we had only partial success with our own problems, it would seem unwise to reach out for another potential problem.”

But Vermont’s Catholic Church immediately expressed interest.

“Naturally, I am very anxious to have the assistance of as many quality priests as may be possible,” then Bishop John Marshall wrote March 21, 1972.

Two months later, Paquette appeared before a personnel board made up of three Vermont priests.

“He talked quite openly, but not with any specifics, about his lapses into homosexuality,” Monsignor Edward Fitzsimons wrote in meeting minutes May 30, 1972, that acknowledge Paquette’s abuse record in Massachusetts and Indiana. “I would rely heavily on the diagnosis and professional advice of Dr. (Charles) Hillenbrand who treated him following his last lapse. He feels that Father Paquette has this trouble only in periods of acute depression and feels that he can function well if these periods of acute depression are avoided.”

That said, Hillenbrand, an Indiana psychiatrist, told church leaders: “As a traditional Catholic I have a perduring deference for authority and I accept the judgments and decisions of your office without challenge.”

Vermont church leaders expressed concern about the applicant.

“I did find it a bit disquieting,” Fitzsimons wrote in meeting minutes, “that he has not visited a psychiatrist since he has returned home. He felt no need of it.”

Yet on June 9, 1972, the Vermont diocese accepted Paquette. The priest penned a letter of thanks to the bishop the next day.

“My ‘past problems’ are in the past,” Paquette wrote, “and I’m convinced that I am cured and have ‘licked’ it.”

Paquette started at Rutland’s Christ the King Church June 14, 1972. That July, a 15-year-old parishioner was paralyzed from just below his shoulders to the soles of his feet in a freak diving accident. That August, the priest, saying a cleric’s hands could heal, began what would be two years of sexual abuse that progressed from kissing and touching to masturbation, oral sex and ultimately intercourse.

The boy stayed silent. But the church would go on to discover other cases.

“I am greatly disappointed and very saddened over the report I received from the hospital that Father Paquette sexually molested two young men while on communion calls,” Rutland Pastor James Engle wrote the bishop Oct. 21, 1974. “As you readily understand, it is imperative that Father Paquette be removed from the Rutland area immediately.”

“I would suggest also,” Engle added, “that since his removal from the parish must be done quickly, it should be done without fanfare and farewell parties and that it be publicly announced as a sick leave.”

‘Danger of scandal is already too risky?’

The diocese sent Paquette to the House of Affirmation, a self-billed “Therapeutic Center for Clergy and Religious” in Whitinsville, Massachusetts.

“It is my clinical opinion that Father Paquette suffers from a moderate frustration neurosis,” the center’s director, the Rev. Thomas Kane, wrote the Vermont bishop. “It is my opinion that Father Paquette should return as soon as possible to a parish setting.”

What wouldn’t be known until years later: Kane, as head of the House of Affirmation, was abusing boys himself during the time of Paquette’s stay.

The Vermont diocese soon reassigned Paquette to Montpelier’s St. Augustine’s Church.

“Through Father Kane’s counseling, prayer and above all, the grace of our Lord,” Paquette wrote the bishop Nov. 21, 1974, “I am assured that I will function as a good priest.”

Paquette’s personnel file contains little about his tenure in Montpelier. But a Washington County man identified only as “John Doe” went on to file a civil lawsuit a quarter-century later alleging the priest assaulted him at St. Augustine’s as many as 50 times from ages 10 to 12.

The diocese moved Paquette to Burlington’s Christ the King Church in 1976. Two years later, the bishop, receiving more abuse reports, sent the priest back to the House of Affirmation.

“Since Father Paquette has now had difficulty in two of our three major population areas, I have told him that there is little opportunity for other assignments within this diocese,” Marshall wrote the head of the center April 4, 1978. “Do you think that the danger of scandal is already too risky?”

A three-page internal memo from the Burlington church soon answered the question. It noted Paquette, in addition to “fondling of privates of altar boys” as young as 11, had told stories to junior high students about “the occult and exorcism process in fairly minute detail,” including some graphic sexual content.

A pediatrician who contacted the church to accuse Paquette of molesting his son said “there was no way to determine later effects of all this,” the memo continued. “His ‘readout’ of parents aware of the problem was that we were dealing with an ‘explosive situation.’”

Marshall dismissed Paquette April 17, 1978.

“No longer could keep lid on things,” the internal memo said.

The bishop elaborated in a letter to the House of Affirmation.

“One person revealed the problem to a lady who was answering the phone in the rectory,” Marshall wrote April 18, 1978. “Another reported that a (nun) in Montpelier could not believe that the bishop would give Father Paquette another assignment ‘after what had happened there.’ This was my first indication (and I assume yours) that there had been any homosexual activity by Father Paquette in Montpelier. In any event, the situation had become so explosive that I had no other recourse but to ask Father Paquette to leave the parish immediately.”

It was Paquette’s third state termination in two decades.

“I believe,” concluded Marshall, who retired in 1992 and died in 1994, “that continuing to allow Father Paquette to function as a priest is one of the things that prevents him from dealing effectively with his problem.”

And so the diocese shelved Paquette’s file, which sat untouched for nearly a quarter-century. Then in 2002, the Boston Globe published a clergy misconduct investigation dramatized in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.” Soon after 32 men from Burlington, Montpelier and Rutland filed civil lawsuits against the Vermont diocese for negligence in hiring and supervising Paquette. More are contemplating their own cases with the recent release of a lay-led church committee report on the statewide problem.

“The volume of the files we were presented with was itself a challenge,” the committee wrote in its findings.

Members discovered letter upon letter of internal worries and warnings. The only thing lacking in Paquette’s 300-page file: An apology to any of the children he abused.

The former priest did attempt to say he was sorry 10 years ago when then Burlington Free Press reporter Sam Hemingway became the only journalist ever to speak with Paquette.

“It’s hard to explain why I did it — I don’t know,” the one-time cleric said. “I’m under advice not to talk about it.”

Paquette said losing his career was a painful penance. But his cousin, who the former priest molested shortly after his ordination in the 1950s, wasn’t convinced.

“I mean, has he really been punished?” the relative said. “I still think he got away with it.”




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