Church Records Battle Persists

By Kevin O'Connor
Rutland Herald [Vermont]
July 5, 2003

A man suing Vermont's Catholic diocese for child sexual abuse will go to court this week seeking church files granted to him by a judge almost seven months ago.

Michael Bernier, a 45-year-old California investment firm vice president, went to Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington last December seeking church paperwork not only about his lawsuit against the Rev. James McShane, but also on all other sexual misconduct charges against Vermont priests past and present.

Judge Matthew Katz ordered the diocese to share more than 50 years of files, saying, "I think there should be disclosure." But a half-year later, Bernier and his lawyer say they've only received part of the paperwork, and will go back to court Thursday (July 10) to demand the rest.

"There's a court order telling the diocese to turn over documents, and they aren't doing it," said Bernier's lawyer, Jerome O'Neill of Burlington. "What I want are all the documents."

In response, church lawyers David Cleary of Rutland and William M. O'Brien of Winooski say they started delivering the files in March, but see reason to withhold psychological and psychiatric reports for McShane and more than a dozen other past and present clergymen.

"Although all priests sent for treatment or evaluation knew they were required to allow disclosure of evaluations, status reports, diagnostic findings, etc. to the bishop, they had every right to expect that the information they provided to health care professionals would otherwise be kept confidential," Cleary and O'Brien have written the court.

O'Neill disagrees. Bernier's lawyer will ask the judge to order the diocese to not only share its files immediately, but also pay his client's fees "in connection with this litigation, or such other sanction as the court deems appropriate," his motion says.

The court case is the first to be publicized in Vermont since state Attorney General William Sorrell began an investigation the winter of 2002 of about 40 past or present priests charged with sexual misconduct.

Bernier alleges McShane sexually abused him repeatedly as an altar boy in St. Albans. He is suing not only McShane who since has resigned as a Rutland pastor but also the diocese for financial damages to be determined by a jury.

Bernier's lawyer told the court last December he needed all the church files to determine if the diocese had a pattern for dealing or not dealing with abuse allegations.

"I don't have any interest in embarrassing any priest," O'Neill, a former federal prosecutor and current chairman of the Burlington Police Commission, said at the time. "I want to use it for this case."

The Vermont attorney general's office has been wrapping up its investigation of charges against eight recently practicing priests, at least six of whom the diocese placed on leave pending the outcome of the review. Neither church nor state leaders have named any of the accused, and only one priest placed on leave the Rev. John Milanese of Randolph is known to have returned to work.

The attorney general is telling the diocese about the state's findings, but doesn't anticipate charging anyone criminally, saying the claims found credible are too old to prosecute under various statutes of limitations.

But several men are pursuing or considering civil lawsuits. Paul Babeu, a 33-year-old former Massachusetts county commissioner, has filed charges in Chittenden Superior Court against the Rev. George Paulin, most recently of Ludlow before his resignation.

Babeu, now of Arizona, announced his lawsuit last December. But more than six months later the paperwork sits sealed in court, although the court has called on lawyers to prepare for a hearing sometime in September, says Babeu's lawyer, Thomas Bixby of Brattleboro.

Contact Kevin O'Connor at


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