They Want to Hear 'I'm Sorry' How It Started Public Outcry 'Isn't Just Money' Church Challenges the Solution?
By Kevin O'Connor
June 18, 2006
Michael Bernier has heard the skepticism about a recent rash of priest misconduct lawsuits in Vermont: Sure, abuse is wrong, people say, but aren't the allegations decades old and the accusers out for money?
Bernier was 11 when a priest began molesting him in St. Albans. Today, at age 48, the onetime schoolboy is a California investment executive. But his childhood still haunts him.
"I was raped by a priest. I haven't forgotten. I'm not healed."
Bernier accepted a $120,000 settlement from Vermont's Catholic Church two years ago. Even so, he hasn't received the one thing he really wants.
"I want to hear 'I'm sorry.' My goal always has been to get the church to say something happened. They haven't said one word to make me feel they feel sorry for anything that happened."
Bernier was the first of more than two dozen men to file child sexual abuse charges against the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. Their collective efforts have forced the church to release paperwork showing it repeatedly reassigned priests it knew had histories of pedophilia without telling parishioners.
But recent letters in the diocese's newspaper, the Vermont Catholic Tribune, indicate that some of the state's 118,000 Catholics don't understand why the men are pressing the cases in court.
"It appears to me that it is the express desire of the local society to destroy the Catholic Church in this state by listing assets and talking punitive damages," a Colchester deacon wrote this month. "Little mention is made by our adversaries about healing."
But healing, Bernier says, is what he has wanted all along. He can't comprehend why a church that preaches love and reconciliation has yet to fully acknowledge and apologize for misconduct documented in its own files, but instead has hired lawyers to fight him and other victims.
"Do you think I did this for money? Do you think I want it in the paper that I was raped as a kid? I went this route because I was forced into it."
Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano, for his part, inherited the problem from his predecessors. Just seven months on the job, the leader of the state's largest religious denomination is trying to appease victims seeking justice and churchgoers facing a clergy shortage and financial crisis.
"When I go from parish to parish, they ask, 'Bishop, what's going to happen?'" Matano says. "Do you think I'm a person who wants to be in the middle of conflicting parties with these concerns? I have to be accountable to all people. I'm seeking reconciliation on all sides."
Bernier didn't have a lawyer when he called the church in 2002 to report his childhood molestation by the Rev. James McShane, former director of the diocese's Office of Youth Ministry and chaplain for the Vermont Boy Scouts and Colchester's Camp Holy Cross.
Bernier decided to speak out after hearing Boston Catholics reveal their own childhood sexual abuse. He told Vermont diocesan officials that McShane had molested him as a St. Albans parochial schoolboy in the late 1960s. He asked them to remove McShane from the ministry and keep him away from children.
Bernier didn't hear anything more. Then, a month later, he learned McShane was working not only as a Rutland pastor, but also at the local Catholic high school. Incensed, he called an attorney and filed his lawsuit.
"I was the first case brought against the diocese. Do you think anyone would have come forward if I hadn't?"
That's unclear. Bernier was the first of four men who filed priest misconduct lawsuits in Vermont after abuse reports in Boston in 2002 revealed a national scandal. Since then, 20 more accusers have introduced similar civil cases in Burlington's Chittenden Superior Court.
Church lawyers fought Bernier in court for two years. Then, in March 2004, they offered him $120,000 — a record proposal at the time — to settle. The money wasn't simply punishment for the past. Bernier, his lawsuit noted, "will continue to incur expenses for medical and psychological treatment, therapy and counseling."
Bernier requested and received one other concession: a meeting with then Bishop Kenneth Angell. He wanted to explain what happened to him as a child and how it affected him as an adult.
Bernier met with Angell and his top aides, the Rev. Wendell Searles and the Rev. Walter Miller, in June 2004.
"The bishop couldn't even look me in the eye," Bernier recalls. "They were uncomfortable. I met with them for an hour and they didn't have much to say. They had the opportunity to apologize face to face, and they didn't even attempt to."
Angell retired as bishop last year and is recuperating from a mild stroke. Searles, speaking for the diocese, confirms the meeting took place but considers anything said in it to be confidential.
"We do not, as a matter of policy, make public any settlements we have taken part in," Searles says.
But Matano, speaking with this newspaper in a rare interview last month, offered conciliatory words about all the church's accusers.
"I believe them when they say it's not about money; the victims are looking for reconciliation," the current bishop said. "I want to do anything possible in charity and justice to reach out to these people."
But Bernier and other men who've received settlements don't understand why the church has yet to acknowledge and apologize for all its past actions.
Michael Gay, a 38-year-old South Burlington landscaper, filed his own lawsuit after learning about Bernier's case. Gay charged that the Rev. Edward Paquette molested him as an altar boy from ages 10 to 12. This April, the night before the start of his trial, the church offered him a record $965,000 settlement.
Gay signed off on the agreement the next morning in court. There, his lawyer revealed dozens of church letters showing the diocese knew that Paquette, now 77 and retired in Massachusetts, had abused boys in two states when it assigned him to parishes in Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.
But in the decades before and days after his settlement, Gay had yet to receive a word from the church expressing any regret.
That appears to be changing. It began last month when Matano, announcing he was shielding the diocese's 128 local parishes in charitable trusts, explained, "In such litigious times, it would be a gross act of mismanagement if I did not do everything possible to protect our parishes and the interests of the faithful from unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault."
The uproar was immediate. Both the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and lay Catholic organization Voice of the Faithful released public letters condemning the bishop's choice of words. Gay spoke out to reporters.
"How dare anyone say it was us, the victims, who assaulted them," Gay said in a front-page story in the Burlington Free Press. "How dare they do what they did to all of us kids and now they are trying to push us all back in a corner."
Soon after, Gay received a handwritten letter from the bishop.
"He stated he didn't mean what he said and he's up for meeting me," Gay says today. "There are definitely a few things I would love to sit down and speak with him about."
Gay, however, has yet to accept the invitation. Still in counseling, he's unsure whether to trust the church that not only allowed such abuse to happen, but also covered it up for decades.
"It's so scary to realize they did this. I'm wondering if the bishop can understand what us victims are going through. I have to be very careful, but I have to have an open mind."
Matano told Gay and this paper he wasn't criticizing the church's accusers in his earlier statement, but "a legal system that sometimes places us in a position where we can't really reach out in justice to all parties."
Searles elaborated last week: "Our position is we will meet with anyone as long as they have not filed a legal suit against us, because the minute that happens, we're not allowed to be in touch so not to be suspected of interfering with justice. It's very frustrating, because in many cases, the first indication of the problem is when the suit is filed."
That has led some Vermont Catholics to blame lawyers and the media.
"I would like to read an unbiased article," one Fairfax parishioner recently wrote the Catholic Tribune, to "let the public know that greedy lawyers will not change the pain the victims experienced, only fill their own pockets with thousands of dollars taken from the innocent of the diocese."
Lawyer Jerome O'Neill represents Bernier, Gay and all 19 men currently pressing lawsuits in Chittenden Superior Court. Some parishioners may see the attorney attacking the church, but O'Neill — chairman of the Burlington Police Commission and a former federal prosecutor — has strong religious roots, having attended Catholic schools from first grade to the Georgetown University Law Center.
The national publication Lawyers Weekly named O'Neill one of its "Lawyers of the Year" in 2004. That's when he forced the diocese to admit it knew another priest, the former Rev. Alfred Willis, had faced sexual misconduct charges as early as seminary but was reassigned repeatedly, even when the church asked the Vatican to defrock him after determining he was guilty of child abuse.
O'Neill says some people may use him as a scapegoat, but ultimately he works for his clients.
"You can see the difference you're able to make in the lives of those people who were abused, and it isn't just money for them," O'Neill told Lawyers Weekly. "It's bringing them peace."
Getting there can seem like war. Bernier had to fly from California to court repeatedly as the diocese filed two years of motions to dismiss or delay his lawsuit. After Gay made his claim, church lawyers sought unsuccessfully to introduce his entire sexual history, including that with his wife, into the case.
The diocese faces 14 more lawsuits against Paquette, one each involving McShane and fellow former priests James Dunn and George Paulin, and two against Willis. Church lawyer David Cleary says the diocese is willing to settle the remaining cases.
"We are always receptive," Cleary says. "Any legitimate victim has an absolute right to fair and reasonable compensation under the law."
But Cleary says the church also has the right to defend itself and is doing so in several ways.
It wants the judge who oversaw Gay's $965,000 settlement to recuse himself from hearing the rest of the lawsuits against it — a request the state's chief administrative judge will consider July 5 at 1 p.m. at Washington Superior Court in Montpelier.
The diocese also is suing the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. in U.S. District Court in Burlington, saying the church held a comprehensive liability insurance policy in the 1970s and wants the company to pay for claims on sexual abuse that occurred then.
The church could use the money. It started its fiscal year last July 1 with a $127,947 deficit and had to take out a loan this spring to cover the $965,000 settlement. Matano hasn't released current figures but says the diocese's finances are "precarious."
The problems come as the diocese prepares to deal with a priest shortage by closing eight of its smallest, most rural parishes and sharing clergy at its remaining 122 churches. Priest numbers have dropped from 274 in 1975 to about 80 today, with that figure expected to decrease to 55 within the decade.
The Vermont church isn't the only one to face such problems. When Sean O'Malley became archbishop for Boston's 2 million Catholics in 2003, he inherited scores of lawsuits, a drop in clergy and enough debt to threaten bankruptcy. Even so, he not only issued a public apology for priest misconduct, but also spearheaded an $85 million settlement with 552 accusers — then the largest such payment ever made by a U.S. church.
"People's lives are more important than money," O'Malley said at the time.
Bernier, a financial specialist, understands the Vermont diocese's predicament. That said, he wishes the church would put its legal fight into perspective.
"Do they not realize they're psychologically harming people they've already abused? It's not me that molested me, it's not me that lied to me, it's not me that moved the priests around. I gave the church every chance to correct itself, but they continuously reopen the wounds. The right words would have gone a long way to healing me. People are suffering. I want to see the church make amends."
Gay has received dozens of calls and letters "from people saying, 'I'm sorry this happened to you, but I'm glad you came forward.' I just wanted people to know just how bad things were and are in terms of the church not facing the music."
And that, he says, is the real payoff of his lawsuit.
"I could care less if I got $1 if I could get this story out. People have got to know. I've got two kids. When I told my son and he said, 'The priest did this to you, Daddy?' it broke my heart. You try to teach them to go to somebody who's safe. Who's safe? It's time for the diocese to acknowledge what has happened, apologize and do what's right."
Contact Kevin O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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