Latest Priest Sex Abuse Trial under Way in Burlington

By Sam Hemingway
Free Press

August 14, 2008

A lawyer for the state’s Roman Catholic diocese told a Burlington jury Wednesday that they will need to step back in time to fairly decide whether the church should pay monetary damages to a former altar boy fondled by a priest years ago.

“More than one of you on the jury wasn’t alive then,” attorney Tom McCormick told the six-man, six-woman Chittenden Superior Court jury. “How you and we can legitimately put ourselves back then, that is the challenge of this case.”

McCormick made the remark during his opening statement in the trial, which marks the third time a case involving child molestation claims against a diocesan priest has been tried at the Burlington court in the past eight months.

Monsignor John McSweeney of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington testifies Wednesday. The diocese is accused of being responsible for the molestation of a former altar boy.

The latest case to reach trial was filed by a 40-year-old Waits-field man who alleges that, as an altar boy at Christ the King Church in Burlington in 1977 and 1978, he was molested between 20 and 50 times by the Rev. Edward Paquette. The Free Press does not identify the victims of alleged sexual abuse without their consent.

Paquette was not sued by the man. Instead, the former altar boy sued the diocese, claiming it knew Paquette was a pedophile when it hired him and was responsible for the abuse because it put Paquette in a position to molest him and other altar boys.

Jerome O’Neill, the man’s lawyer, told the jury his client was seeking monetary damages from the diocese because it was the only way for the diocese to make up for the harm it had caused the former altar boy.

“The diocese protected priests rather than protecting children,” O’Neill said. “We are suing the Burlington diocese because it covered up the abuse.”

O’Neill also said the diocese kept evidence of Paquette’s sexual misconduct a secret for years and had a long history of overlooking priests’ sexual misconduct with children.

“This was part of a larger pattern of practice by this diocese,” O’Neill said of the incidents involving his client.

The case in many ways is identical to a case that ended in May with a jury award of $8.7 million to another former Christ the King altar boy abused by Paquette. The Waitsfield man in the trial that got under way Wednesday testified in the May trial.

The May verdict shocked the diocese and prompted Bishop Salvatore Matano to remark that paying such a large amount of money would “seriously impact” the statewide diocese’s operations.

McCormick, in his opening remarks, told the jury Wednesday that Bishop John Marshall hired Paquette after being assured by church psychologists that Paquette’s past “homosexual” tendencies had been cured.

McCormick said it might be hard today to understand how the diocese could employ a priest with a history of molesting boys, but the 1970s were a different time and Marshall relied on the advice of church psychologists in deciding to hire Paquette.

McCormick said many of the diocesan leaders at the time, including Marshall, are not alive to defend themselves.

“We’re two bishops removed from the man who made the decision about Father Paquette coming to serve in Vermont,” McCormick said. “There’s going to be no surprise witness here. They’re dead. This is going to be a peculiar case, in that it’s based on documents.”

Following opening arguments, Monsignor John McSweeney took the witness stand and was questioned by O’Neill about a series of church documents chronicling Paquette’s hiring in 1972 and his six years as a parish priest in Vermont.

McSweeney was a diocesan administrator in the 1970s and assisted Marshall in the Paquette hiring.

At one point, O’Neill asked McSweeney if he agreed that, based on the information available at the time, the diocese should not have hired Paquette in 1972.

“Yes, he should not have been hired,” McSweeney answered.

The trial resumes today and is expected to last through next week.

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


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