Diocese Tries to Use Confidential Records to Aid Its Case

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press

August 20, 2008

The clergy sex abuse trial in Burlington took an unexpected turn Tuesday when a lawyer for the state's Roman Catholic diocese had a church official review confidential personnel records of six former priests accused of molesting children.

Wendell Searles, former vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, looks over copies of letters concerning former abusive priests during his testimony Tuesday.

"I'm going to show you documents that were not shown you yesterday," attorney Tom McCormick told former diocesan Vicar General Wendall Searles as he put into evidence a series of letters and memos detailing the diocese's response to molestation allegations involving the priests.

The move by McCormick was a surprise because the diocese has, over the years, strongly opposed having its priest personnel records become public.

In previous trials, including one in May that ended with an $8.7 million verdict, the diocese did not rely on the documents as part of its defense. That verdict, which stunned the diocese at the time, has been appealed.

The documents singled out by McCormick on Tuesday contained information that he presented as proof that the diocese had not shrugged off allegations of clergy sex abuse.

In one example, the documents showed unsuccessful efforts by the diocese to substantiate the abuse claims against a priest. In another example, the letters showed a priest quickly admitted the abuse claims and went into therapy after being confronted by the diocese.

The review of the personnel records began late Monday, when the jury in the case was shown other documents suggesting the diocese was slow to address clergy sex abuse complaints over the years.

Those papers were introduced by Jerome O'Neill, the lawyer for a Waitsfield man who claims that as an altar boy at Christ the King Church in Burlington, he was molested by the Rev. Edward Paquette between 20 and 50 times. The Burlington Free Press does not identify the alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

After the defense completed its review Tuesday, O'Neill had Searles examine a letter from former Bishop John Marshall that claimed he had heard no previous allegations about one of the six priests being a child molester.

O'Neill then noted another church document, dated five years earlier, that alleged sexual abuse by that priest.

"This story that the bishop had never heard that ... that's not really accurate, is it?" O'Neill asked Searles.

"No, it isn't," Searles acknowledged.

All six of the priests whose records were displayed during the trial Tuesday were contemporaries of Paquette. Of the six priests, two are deceased. Searles, 82, said he knew all of them but did not know Paquette. Marshall died in 1994.

Paquette, who was stripped of his priestly duties in 1978, lives in Westfield, Mass., and is not a defendant in the case on trial.

Instead, the Waitsfield man is suing only the diocese, arguing it knew Paquette had molested boys in two other states when it hired him and then let Paquette continue to have access to altar boys in Vermont after receiving a report that Paquette had sexually abused boys in Rutland.

The lengthy, sometimes tedious review of the church documents by McCormick and O'Neill lasted nearly the entire day. When it was finally over, a relieved Searles humored the jury by raising his hands and looking thankfully toward the heavens before exiting the courtroom.

The trial, at Chittenden Superior Court, is expected to last through the end of this week.

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


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