Church Ordered Again to Release Records

By Kevin O'Connor
Times Argus [Burlington VT]
July 11, 2003

BURLINGTON A man suing 's Catholic diocese for child sexual abuse may soon receive all church files granted to him by a judge almost seven months ago.

Michael Bernier, a 45-year-old California investment firm vice president, filed a motion in Chittenden Superior Court last December seeking church paperwork not only about his lawsuit against former Rutland pastor James McShane, but also on all other sexual misconduct charges against state priests past and present.

Judge Matthew Katz ordered the diocese to share more than 50 years of files, only to face a complaint Thursday that the church had yet to fully deliver. As a result, he told the diocese to hand over all remaining information within a month.

"I think we're going to get virtually all what we want," said Bernier's lawyer, Jerome O'Neill of , "but it's an incredibly expensive, frustrating process. The diocese has dragged this on for months."

O'Neill produced a timetable that showed after the judge granted the files last Dec. 16, church lawyers said they would share them around Feb. 15, only to amend that to March 6, only to amend that to March 10.

The diocese did deliver the first of its files on that last date, but waited to finish handing over its information until Wednesday less than 24 hours before Thursday's hearing. Most of the estimated 1,500 pages featured inked-out words, sentences or paragraphs, O'Neill added.

Church lawyers David Cleary of Rutland and William M. O'Brien of Winooski said the delay came because they had to sort through more than 50 years of diocesan records to find the relevant files and then block out facts they deemed confidential in a lawyer/client or patient/doctor relationship.

"We've given them all the documents we have," Cleary said Thursday.

Katz, apparently, didn't agree. After more than three hours of closed-door court meetings, the judge ordered church lawyers to return next month with some information they had inked out and more explanation on why other facts should remain private.

Bernier, who flew from , to for the hearing, was barred from the sessions in the judge's private chambers.

"This isn't an easy thing to go through, but they're empowering me to continue, rather than push off," Bernier said as he waited alone. "I'm doing something that has to be done for all the victims."

The court case is the first to be publicized in since state Attorney General William Sorrell began an investigation during 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 . He is suing not only McShane who since has resigned as pastor of 's Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church but also the diocese for financial damages to be determined by a jury.

O'Neill said his client has a strong case without the church files, "but what we want is to be able to corroborate it."

McShane, for his part, wasn't in court Thursday, but instead represented by his lawyer, Matthew Harnett of .


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