Judge Declares Mistrial in Church Abuse Case

By Kevin O'connor
Times Argus

August 28, 2008

BURLINGTON A judge declared a mistrial Wednesday after a Chittenden Superior Court jury remained deadlocked on whether Vermont's Catholic Church was negligent in hiring and supervising a pedophile priest.

A five-man, seven-woman panel had deliberated for 16 hours over three days when Judge Matthew Katz received a note at noon saying, "We do not agree and can no longer proceed. Question how do we proceed?"

The judge's answer: "I don't have a magic bullet I'm going to declare a mistrial."

Thomas Murray, a 40-year-old Waitsfield man, had sued the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese for failing to protect him from the former Rev. Edward Paquette, who church records show molested boys in Massachusetts and Indiana before he was assigned without warning to 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.

Murray, saying the priest grasped his genitals 20 to 50 times when he was a 9-year-old altar boy, had sought up to a record $14.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages. But the jury, deeming the priest's actions wrong, couldn't decide whether the diocese was legally liable and, if so, for how much.

"So different opinion between the 12 jurors we don't decide," said juror Ladislav Cutura, a 64-year-old Burlington resident originally from Bosnia.

Cutura, standing outside court after the mistrial, apologized for his English. But he said what several other jurors confirmed in interviews: They were divided on all three parts of their job.

Jurors first had to determine whether the diocese should be held responsible. When they couldn't agree on that, members chose to move to their second and third tasks: If the church was negligent, how much should it pay in compensatory damages and, if warranted, additional punitive damages.

"There was a lot of opinion, a lot of confusion, a lot of emotion, a lot of minds that were not made up as to the charge of negligence," said one juror, who asked not to be identified. "In the spirit of cooperation, we moved on to talking about dollars."

But that sparked just as much disagreement. Some jurors wanted to limit damages those interviewed voiced figures ranging from $25,000 to $250,000 while others suggested awarding as much as $5 million, recalled Cutura (who himself favored "high as half million").

Jurors said a slight majority wanted steep damages, but added they weren't divided by age, sex or socioeconomic background.

"I think we had a pretty equal split regardless," one said. "We were trying to do the right and fair thing, and we stayed at it long and hard. That mix of jurors was such that we just couldn't get there. At some point, we agreed we couldn't agree."

The mistrial came three months after a different jury surprised the diocese by awarding $8.7 million to Perry Babel, a 40-year-old Burlington native who said he was abused by the same priest in the same church and time period 40 to 100 times.

In the May trial, a jury needed five hours to reach its record verdict. This time, the 12-person panel deliberated for 5-1/2 hours Monday, 7-1/2 hours Tuesday and three hours Wednesday before it was sent home.

The judge had hoped to break the impasse just before the mistrial by suggesting the jury stop talking about compensatory damages an earlier note said members were deadlocked there and move on to consider punitive damages.

"If all of you agree there ought to be some compensatory award, perhaps you ought to consider sort of penciling in '$ something' on the verdict form and proceeding to the punitive damage issue," Katz wrote. "Should you be able to reach an agreement on the punitive issue, number 3 on the verdict form, perhaps it will serve to aid resolution of the compensatory issue, number 2."

What the judge didn't know was that the jury already had tried that suggestion when, stuck the day before on the first question of legal liability, it had moved to the second question of compensatory damages.

"We laughed about that," one juror said of the judge's note. "We had already been practicing that advice. But at the end of the day, after trying three or four different ways to revisit this, we just didn't know how to proceed."

The state's largest religious denomination has spent six years and at least $2 million to resolve nine previous misconduct lawsuits but still faces 21 similar cases involving eight former priests.

Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano, who attended all 10 days of the latest proceedings, hoped the mistrial would spur everyone to settle the rest of the civil claims out-of-court.

"Please, God, help us to go forward and seek resolution," Matano told reporters Wednesday.

Church counsel Thomas McCormick said he considered May's $8.7 million verdict "an aberration to have a jury here not return the same verdict with the same speed is affirming."

But Jerome O'Neill, the lawyer for Murray and others suing the church, said his clients wouldn't settle until the diocese changed its way of negotiating.

"This diocese wants to pay five cents to the dollar what a jury would pay," O'Neill said.

The national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests responded to the mistrial by commending the plaintiff for "persisting despite hardball tactics by church officials and their lawyers."

In both May and this month, church lawyers didn't dispute the misconduct allegations but argued the diocese wasn't 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.

Murray and the diocese had tried to settle his case out of court but couldn't agree to a figure. Neither side will say how much each requested. But a recent plaintiff in another case, not wanting to face the trial spotlight last February, accepted a church offer of $170,000.

The diocese, which is appealing May's $8.7 million verdict, doesn't have insurance for priest misconduct, although it says it held a comprehensive liability policy from 1972 to 1978. The church can't find its copy of the policy, however, so it has taken the insurer to court in hopes the company will unearth the paperwork and pay for the costs to deal with sexual abuse lawsuits.

To protect its local assets, the diocese in 2006 placed each of its more than 120 parishes in separate charitable trusts. That has left its remaining property vulnerable. The court has placed a lien on the diocese's Burlington headquarters a historic $11 million brick building at 351 North Ave., on land overlooking Lake Champlain to ensure it can pay May's $8.7 million verdict if it's upheld by the Supreme Court.

In the latest trial, Murray testified his abuse led 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.

The plaintiff's lawyers, suggesting the figure of $10,000 per incident 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.

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 comment.

Contact Kevin O'Connor at


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