'May Our Lord Forgive Me'
How One Problem Priest in Vermont Kept Getting Another Chance
By Kevin O'Connor
Rutland Herald [Vermont]
April 23, 2006
On Jan. 25, 1972, John Marshall became Vermont's seventh Catholic bishop. Two months later, an arsonist burned Burlington's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to the ground. Five days after that, an Indiana priest wrote Marshall a letter that last week sparked a firestorm of disclosures.
"Dear Bishop Marshall, My congratulations upon your consecration as bishop and appointment to the Diocese of Burlington. I am very sorry to read about the Cathedral being badly burned and damaged in the recent fire. My name is Father Edward Paquette. I am requesting of you, Bishop Marshall, to serve my priestly ministry in your diocese."
Paquette went on to write that he had been a priest for 15 years, that he was working in the Midwest, that he wanted to move east to be closer to his aging parents. Almost as an aside, he included one more sentence: "I did have problems but received medical treatment, and I am now cured."
Paquette didn't say his problem was molesting boys — a problem that led the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington to pay one Vermont victim a record $965,000 last week to settle the first of 17 priest misconduct lawsuits against it.
Twelve of those lawsuits involve Paquette, now 77 and retired in Massachusetts. Arriving in Vermont three months after writing his introductory letter to Marshall, the priest was assigned to parishes in Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.
Paquette sexually abused boys in all three communities, church records and court documents provided to this newspaper show. The files also reveal a more unsettling fact, just one of many that the diocese and its lawyers don't contest: Vermont Catholic leaders knew of the priest's pedophilia even before they hired him.
Paquette was 28 when he began working as a priest in the Diocese of Fall River in his home state of Massachusetts in 1957. Six years later, after church leaders received reports that he had abused boys in at least two communities, his 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," its bishop, James Connolly, wrote Paquette on 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, Paquette went on to minister in Indiana. Church leaders there, hearing about his "sexual overtures" to three boys, relieved him of his duties.
Paquette, telling Indiana psychiatrist Charles Hillenbrand about his sexual misconduct with children, started receiving "intensive electric shock therapy" on April 27, 1971, court records show. A year later, Paquette mentioned Hillenbrand as a reference (but nothing about his specific treatment) in his letter seeking a job in Vermont.
"… I do pray, Bishop Marshall, that you will consider my request and accept me into your diocese," the priest wrote on March 18, 1972. "I do ever want so much to carry on my priestly ministry. Should you wish further information do let me know — or maybe, should you wish a personal interview, I will be very happy to come to see you at your convenience. God bless you. Sincerely in Christ, Father Edward O. Paquette."
Marshall wrote Paquette back three days later.
"Naturally, I am very anxious to have the assistance of as many quality priests as may be possible," the bishop wrote. "I would greatly appreciate receiving medical reports from the doctors in Michigan City, Indiana, or those presently treating you in Westfield, Mass., in order that I might know the nature of your illness and the progress you have made."
On March 30, 1972, Bishop Leo Pursley of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., wrote to Vermont church leaders about Paquette's behavior.
"The dossier is large and the history is long," Pursley began. "I will try to be brief and to the point."
The Indiana bishop, noting "three homosexual episodes involving young boys," suggested the priest be assigned to an "institutional chaplaincy" rather than a community church so he could minister "with less likelihood of relapse."
Vermont church leaders also received a letter from Hillenbrand. A year earlier, the psychiatrist, when asked for advice by the Indiana bishop, wrote: "I have none. As a traditional Catholic I have perduring deference for authority and I accept the judgments and decisions of your office without challenge."
But on April 28, 1972, Hillenbrand wrote the Vermont diocese: "I would endorse him for any type of assignment for which his training qualifies him, including parish work. Because of his past medical problems I recommend two stipulations prior to assignment: (1) a monthly conference with a confessor-counselor and (2) a semiannual examination by a physician, preferably a psychiatrist."
On May 30, 1972, 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. "I would rely heavily on the diagnosis and professional advice of Dr. 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."
"P.S.," Fitzsimons added. "I did find it a bit disquieting that he has not visited a psychiatrist since he has returned home. He felt no need of it."
On June 9, 1972, the Vermont diocese assigned Paquette to Christ the King Church in Rutland.
"Bishop Marshall, upon the advice of your former doctor, Dr. Charles Hillenbrand, requests that you visit regularly a psychiatrist who has been made aware of your prognosis and a report of these visits made known to your pastor," diocesan Chancellor John McSweeney wrote Paquette.
Paquette penned a letter of thanks to the bishop the next day.
"… My 'past problems' are in the past, and along with Doctor Hillenbrand, I'm convinced that I am cured and have 'licked' it. God bless you. Remembering you in my prayers. Sincerely in Christ, Reverend Edward O. Paquette."
But two years later, Rutland Pastor James Engle wanted the priest out of his church.
"Dear Bishop Marshall, I am greatly disappointed and very saddened over the report I received from the (Rutland) hospital that Father Paquette sexually molested two young men while on communion calls in the hospital," Engle wrote in a letter Oct. 21, 1974. "As you readily understand, it is imperative that Fr. 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.")
Two days later, the diocese sent Paquette to a psychiatrist and then to House of Affirmation, a self-billed "Therapeutic Center for Clergy and Religious" in Whitinsville, Mass. There, on Nov. 3, 1974, the priest wrote a letter.
"Dear Bishop Marshall, How are you? Very well, I pray. … I am very sorry that I did what I did. In humility, may our Lord forgive me. I have a better outlook for the future, and know that I will be able to return to my priestly duties. …"
Three days later, the head of House of Affirmation, the Rev. Thomas Kane, wrote the Vermont bishop after interviewing Paquette three times.
"It is my clinical opinion that Father Paquette suffers from a moderate frustration neurosis. … It is my opinion that Father Paquette should return as soon as possible to a parish setting … It is also strongly recommended that Father Paquette come to see me once a month … I believe that this type of maintenance therapy over a period of six months to a year will help Father Paquette to better understand the problematic in his own life."
Two weeks later, the diocese reassigned Paquette to St. Augustine's Church in Montpelier.
"Many appreciate thanks for this to the bishop and yourself," the priest wrote the diocesan chancellor Nov. 21, 1974. "I am praying for you, too. So have a Happy Thanksgiving. Don't eat too much."
Court records don't include any diocesan reports of abuse written during Paquette's tenure in Montpelier. But a Washington County man named only as "John Doe" has filed a lawsuit in Burlington's Chittenden Superior Court alleging the priest assaulted him at St. Augustine's as many as 50 times from ages 10 to 12.
On June 15, 1976, the diocese moved Paquette to Christ the King Church in Burlington. Two years later, the bishop, receiving more abuse reports, sent the priest back to House of Affirmation.
"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," Marshall wrote the head of the center on April 4, 1978. "Our thinking is that, knowing the awareness of others, concerning his problem, Father Paquette will have reason for 'self-control.'"
The bishop then asked: "do you think that the danger of scandal is already too risky?"
A three-page internal memo from the Burlington church to the bishop answered the question.
It noted Paquette, in addition to "fondling of privates of altar boys," had told stories to junior high students about "the occult and exocism (sic) process in fairly minute detail," including some graphic sexual content.
A pediatrician who contacted the church "felt there was no way to determine later effects of all this," the memo continued. "Public school teachers would be dropped on the spot. His 'read out' of parents aware of the problem was that we were dealing with an 'explosive situation.'"
Marshall terminated Paquette on April 17, 1978.
"No longer could keep lid on things at Christ the King," the internal memo said.
The bishop elaborated in a letter to the head of 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 Sister 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 diocesan termination in two decades.
"I believe," Marshall concluded, "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."
On April 26, 1978, the bishop thanked the Burlington church for its memo.
"I greatly appreciate the loyalty with which you have worked with me in this case," Marshall wrote. "As I am sure that you understand, the tension that can sometimes develop between the concern that we should have for one of God's chosen priests and the equally great concern that we should have for the spiritual welfare of His people can be great indeed and not easily resolved."
With that, the diocese filed away the last of its Paquette letters. Marshall retired in 1992 and died in 1994.
Then, two years ago, Michael Gay, a South Burlington man who is now 38, started talking to lawyer Jerome O'Neill about his childhood.
On June 23, 2004, O'Neill filed a civil lawsuit in Chittenden Superior Court against the church, claiming Paquette "sexually abused and sexually exploited" Gay as an altar boy from ages 10 to 12.
This March 29, Paquette, now living in his parents' old home in Westfield, Mass., wrote the court a letter saying he couldn't attend a trial because he was about to receive radiation treatment for prostate cancer and couldn't afford lodging.
Wednesday, lawyers announced the record $965,000 settlement. Gay, sitting with his wife in court, listened as O'Neill explained how the diocese had paperwork detailing seemingly everything — not only on Paquette, but also on at least two other former Vermont priests facing lawsuits.
The only thing lacking: A single piece of paper acknowledging or apologizing to the abused boy and his family.
"Today is the only admission that they've given me," Gay said through tears.
Contact Kevin O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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