Diocese Acts to Protect Assets, Seek Judge's Withdrawal

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press [Vermont]
January 11, 2007

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington has unveiled a two-pronged strategy to deal with potential fallout from a recent $965,000 settlement in the first of 19 priest sex abuse cases it is faces in Chittenden Superior Court.

In a letter written by Bishop Salvatore Matano and read to attendees at Mass over the weekend around the state, Matano said he has placed the diocese's 128 parishes in individual charitable trusts "to protect the vested interests of our parishes.

"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," Matano wrote in his letter.

Monday, court officials also confirmed the diocese has filed a motion seeking to have Judge Ben Joseph, the presiding judge in the abuse cases, withdraw from overseeing the remaining priest abuse cases pending in the court.

"Parties in litigation should not be compelled to submit to a court which has prejudged the matter, or one which candidly states a position of bias or prejudice," the diocese alleged in its motion, released late Monday afternoon by Joseph over the diocese's objections.

The motion describes, among other things, the sexual history of Michael Gay, the man who brought the case that was settled April 19, and said Joseph wrongly prevented the diocese from fully exploring Gay's past. The motion said Joseph betrayed his own wish for fair trials in the future by releasing documents in the Gay case on the day it was settled.

"We don't believe we were treated fairly with regard to the judge's rulings," said David Cleary, the diocesan attorney, on Monday. "We got plowed under by him. That's why we were forced into making a settlement."

Jerome O'Neill, the attorney representing Gay and the 18 others who have cases pending against the diocese alleging they were molested as children, called the twin actions by the diocese "outrageous."

"The diocese only cares about itself," he said. "It either doesn't understand or doesn't care about the children its priests have molested. This is a re-victimization of these people."

O'Neill said he believes the church's efforts to put its parishes in separate trusts violates state laws prohibiting entities from hiding assets from potential creditors. He said he intends to pursue legal action against the diocese for establishing the parish trusts.

As for the motion to have the judge step aside, O'Neill accused the diocese of trying to "shoot the messenger because it doesn't like the message. The attack on Joseph has no basis in law."

Matano was unavailable for interviews Monday on the diocese's actions, but the diocese's public relations office did release a copy of Matano's letter, plus video and audio versions of him reading the letter for use by broadcast media.

"He doesn't want to speak with anyone in the media today," said diocesan spokeswoman Gloria Gibson. "He's busy in meetings."

Later Monday, responding to an inquiry by The Burlington Free Press, Matano issued a follow-up statement saying he was referring to the legal system, not victims of priest sex abuse in his remark about the "unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault" on the church.

"It is about a legal system that is creating a whole new set of victims, the innocent faithful, and their innocent priests," he said in the statement. "Some attorneys seem to be taking advantage of the situation to enhance their own income. Perhaps they are the ones who should be more careful about throwing the word 'fraud' around."

O'Neill called Matano's remarks in his letter offensive and hurtful to the alleged victims in the cases, nearly all of whom say they were altar boys when they were molested by priests years ago.

"They're outraged," O'Neill said of his clients. "The diocese is taking the same high-handed view it's had going back to the 1970s, which is saying 'We are above the law and we can hide our priests, hide our documents and now, hide our money.'"

Cleary said the diocese still has ample real estate holdings to address the potential cost of resolving the remaining priest sex abuse cases it faces, even with the creation of the individual parish trusts.

"The diocese has extensive assets it has always said it owned and has always carried on its balance sheets," Cleary said. "It never has carried the parishes on its balance sheets."

In a related matter, William O'Brien, another diocesan lawyer, said the diocese last Friday filed a lawsuit in Washington Superior Court aimed at forcing a former insurance provider to cover the $965,000 settlement in the Gay case and possibly other future awards or settlements.

O'Brien said the diocese is seeking a court ruling ordering St. Paul Travelers Co. to make good on a comprehensive liability insurance policy that was in place in the 1970s when the alleged molestation of Gay occurred.

The policy was provided by United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co., which later merged with St. Paul Travelers. O'Brien said the diocese has not located a copy of the actual policy, but believes it has enough evidence to prove to a court that the policy existed.

Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or e-mail at


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