Diocese Settles Sex-Abuse Case

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
April 13, 2007

"This has nothing to do with money. ... I just hope this helps make sure other kids are safe."Neil Morrissette,48, alleged that the Rev. George Paulin molested him in 1971 and 1972

in early 1970s, plaintiff said

The state's Roman Catholic Diocese has agreed to a $135,000 settlement in a lawsuit brought by a St. Johnsbury man who said he was sexually molested as a boy by the Rev. George Paulin, lawyers connected with the case said Thursday.

Neil Morrissette, now 48, alleged that Paulin molested him in 1971 and 1972 at the Morrissette family's home in Newport and at the rectory of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Newport. Paulin was the parish priest at St. Mary at the time.

Under the settlement terms, Morrissette will receive $120,000. The remaining $15,000 will be paid to settle a related legal dispute between lawyers for Morrissette and the diocese that flared up during the case last year.

"I'm comfortable with the settlement," said Morrissette, who until Thursday had sought to keep his identity unpublished. "But this has nothing to do with money. ... I just hope this helps make sure other kids are safe."

Paulin will pay a $5,000 portion of the settlement, diocesan lawyer Tom McCormick said. Paulin and his lawyer, Fred Glover, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The settlement is the first one reached since the diocese agreed to pay $965,000 to Michael Gay of South Burlington last year to settle his claim of abuse against former Rev. Ed Paquette.

After that settlement, the diocese tried to get Judge Ben Joseph to step down from presiding over the Morrissette case, arguing Joseph had demonstrated bias against the church. The effort was unsuccessful, but it delayed progress in the case for several months.

Jerome O'Neill, the lawyer for Gay and Morrissette, said resolving the Morrissette case was also complicated by the fact that no one could find evidence that the diocese knew of Paulin's "tendencies" before the alleged abuse of Morrissette. In Gay's case, the diocese had extensive knowledge of prior sexual misconduct by Paquette.

"This was a much more difficult case to prove," O'Neill said. "We had no doubt that Paulin abused Neil or what its effect was on him, but we couldn't find knowledge of his tendencies before 1971."

McCormick said Bishop Salvatore Matano was kept abreast of the settlement negotiations during the past week and consented to the $135,000 figure.

"It seemed like the most prudent thing to do, to take care of Mr. Morrissette and the Catholic community at large," McCormick said. "Litigation gets expensive."

Matano, in a statement released by the diocese late Thursday afternoon, said he hoped all Catholics would pray for those who have suffered from sexual abuse.

"I am deeply concerned that our brothers and sisters scarred by sexual abuse will not abandon the faith and that the trust they once placed in the Church, so severely damaged by the sins of some, will one day be restored," Matano said.

The case was the second in Vermont alleging Paulin had molested a youth. In 2003, the diocese paid $20,000 to settle a case brought by Paul Babeu of Massachusetts, who alleged Paulin sexually abused him in late 1984 and early 1985 during an overnight visit to a home in the Northeast Kingdom.

Paulin last served as a parish priest in 2002, when he was suspended from priestly duties by the diocese as an Attorney General's Office investigation was reviewing sexual misconduct claims against a number of priests.

McCormick said the diocese agreed to pay $15,000 to reimburse costs incurred by O'Neill to settle his dispute with longtime diocesan attorney William O'Brien.

O'Neill claimed last year that O'Brien concealed internal church documents that he was required by the court to share with O'Neill. A hearing on O'Neill's request for "sanctions" or punishment of O'Brien had been scheduled for next week.

McCormick said O'Brien did not participate in the negotiations to resolve the documents dispute with O'Neill but declined further comment. "It's just done," he said. "I would not read anything into it."

O'Brien did not respond to a request for an interview. His lawyer, Ritchie Berger, claimed the diocese offered to pay Morrissette the full $135,000 and said it was O'Neill who wanted $15,000 of the settlement designated as payment to resolve what Berger said were "baseless" claims against O'Brien.

"O'Neill requested a $15,000 carve-out as an obvious face-saving gesture," Berger said. "That's the reality, no matter how Jerry tries to spin it."

O'Neill heatedly rejected Berger's version of events. "My client wouldn't settle his case without resolving this other case," O'Neill said. "I would have been happy going to a hearing on this."

The diocese will assemble the $135,000 from its "financial reserves" and not draw on revenues raised to support church operations or the Bishop's Fund, according to statement from the diocese.

With the Morrissette settlement, 25 cases alleging sexual misconduct by Catholic priests remain pending in Chittenden County Superior Court. None of the 25 involves a claim against Paulin.


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