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  Judge: Church Jury Is "at Odds"

By Kevin O'connor
Rutland Herald

August 27, 2008

http://www.rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080827/NEWS04/808270393

BURLINGTON A jury was deadlocked Tuesday after 13 hours of deliberation on whether Vermont's Catholic Church should pay for negligence in hiring and supervising a pedophile priest.

A five-man, seven-woman panel has spent two days considering whether the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese is liable in the Chittenden Superior Court case of Thomas Murray, a 40-year-old Waitsfield man who says the former Rev. Edward Paquette abused him 20 to 50 times as an altar boy in 1977 and 1978.

The jury has a three-part job. First, it must determine whether the diocese failed to protect Murray when he was a 9-year-old parishioner at Burlington's Christ the King Church. If the jury finds negligence, it then must decide how much to award Murray in compensatory damages and, if warranted, additional punitive damages.

Shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday, Judge Matthew Katz announced that the jury, deliberating behind closed doors, sent him a note saying it couldn't agree on what to award in compensatory damages and wanted his advice.

The judge called the jury into the courtroom at 3:30 p.m.

"The note says you're at odds at what to do," Katz told the panel. "I can't give you a ballpark. I can't give you a range of numbers. I can't give you a table to consult. I can't tell you what's reasonable and unreasonable."

In closing arguments Monday, Murray's lawyers, suggesting the figure of $10,000 per incident of abuse or per year of suffering plus 30 years of interest, had proposed compensatory damages of $886,000 to $2.3 million and additional punitive damages of $6 million to $12 million.

But church attorneys, calling those numbers "absurd," asked the jury to limit any award to compensatory damages of $5,000 to $15,000 for mental health therapy and not to punish it with any additional damages.

The judge said Tuesday he could only repeat what's called for by law.

"Compensatory damages," he said, "are supposed to make a plaintiff whole."

But Katz did voice concern about a hung jury in a case that's consumed two weeks of court time and money.

"If we cannot reach a verdict," he said, "it's a terrible burden to all the parties."

The judge asked jurors to listen to each other and remain open-minded while at the same time staying true to their individual opinions rather than acquiescing for the sake of agreement.

Katz added there wasn't much more he could legally say.

"I'm not sure what you expected of me," he said.

With that, several female jurors, looking stressed, placed their hands on their heads and laughed nervously.

The jury began deliberations at 3:15 p.m. Monday and retired 5-1/2 hours later at 8:45 p.m. It returned to court at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and met all morning and afternoon, going so far as to continue while chewing over lunch.

"I don't think justice is served by having the end be some marathon event," Katz said late Tuesday afternoon.

And so the judge dismissed the jury at 5 p.m. after 7-1/2 hours of deliberating and asked members to return at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Jurors won't be the only ones who'll return after time to think. Following Tuesday's session, Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano could be heard in the courthouse speaking with church lawyers about possible options.

The diocese had tried to settle Murray's case before the trial but the sides couldn't agree to a financial figure. Neither side will say how much each requested. But Paquette's first accuser, ready to take the witness stand in 2006, received a then-record $965,000 settlement, while a recent plaintiff in another case, not wanting to face the trial spotlight last February, accepted a church offer of $170,000.

A hung jury or last-minute settlement aren't the only ways the trial could end without a verdict. During closing arguments Monday, the plaintiff's lawyers called for a mistrial after church counsel, referring to a record $8.7 million verdict in another priest misconduct case in May, said, "Isn't one lawsuit enough to teach a lesson?"

Murray's attorneys argued the current jury shouldn't be informed or influenced by other lawsuits. Katz rejected the mistrial request but later told the panel, "Do not concern yourself with other cases each case must stand on its own."

(In the May trial, a jury needed five hours to reach its record verdict.)

In both the past and present cases, church lawyers haven't disputed the allegations but argue the diocese shouldn't be liable because it was following since-debunked advice of psychiatrists who, at one point, hoped the priest could be cured through 11 sessions of electric shock therapy.

Church records show the diocese placed Paquette at Rutland's Christ the King Church in 1972, Montpelier's St. Augustine's Church in 1974 and Burlington's Christ the King Church in 1976 without telling anyone it knew the priest had molested boys in Massachusetts and Indiana.

Murray testified the abuse caused him to have nightmares, avoid religion and turn to alcohol and drugs and, more recently, suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and problems with physical intimacy, leading to a divorce with the mother of his child.

Murray's case is the third priest misconduct lawsuit to reach a Vermont jury since news of a national child sex abuse scandal broke six years ago. Paquette, now 79 and retired in Massachusetts, didn't attend the trial against the diocese and has refused to comment.

Contact Kevin O'Connor at kevin.oconnor@rutlandherald.com.

 
 

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