Testimony Has Begun in Priest Abuse Case

By Adam Silverman
Burlington Free Press

December 3, 2008

Testimony is under way, and opening statements have concluded in the lawsuit against the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington involving claims of sexual abuse by a priest and a cover-up by church leaders.

The case involves claims by a former Burlington altar boy that he was molested by the Rev. Edward Paquette twice in the late 1970s. His lawsuit is the third such case against the diocese to go to trial within the past year.

"The diocese chooses to protect priests rather than to protect children," the man's lead attorney, Jerome O'Neill, told jurors this morning in Chittenden Superior Court. "This diocese created an atmosphere in which child molestation was acceptable."

Defense attorneys for the diocese contend the man waited too long to file his lawsuit, but O'Neill told the jury his client became aware of the effects of the abuse on his life and of the diocese's culpability only within the past six years. The diocese does not dispute the allegations of molestation, which happened when the plaintiff was an 11-year-old altar boy at Christ the King Church in Burlington. Paquette is not a defendant.

The former altar boy, now a businessman living in Hyattsville, Md., is seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages.The Burlington Free Press does not disclose the names of alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

Diocese attorney Thomas McCormick told jurors, who were selected Tuesday in a daylong proceeding, that 36 years have passed since decisions were made to bring Paquette to Vermont, and 30 years since the alleged abuse. McCormick conceded the molestation did occur, and he called it "illegal, immoral and wrong."

Much has changed during those interceding decades, McCormick said.

"At the time, pedophilia was thought to be a mental condition associated with depression," he said to the jury. "How do we as a judicial system deal with an organization's responsibility for decisions made 36 years ago? How does one assess the consequences, the impact on a victim's life?"

O'Neill said the victim experienced lifelong suffering -- including persistent anxiety, fears of failure, alcohol abuse and other difficulties -- caused by the abuse the diocese permitted. A financial award is the only way under the law to compensate the victim and to punish the diocese for allowing Paquette's misconduct to continue, O'Neill argued.

"There isn't some other thing we can do to change history," he said, adding he will disclose a figure at the end of the trial. "The amount we request equals the amount of harm this diocese did."

McCormick countered that the diocese will dispute the link between the sexual molestation and the victim's experiences and challenges since. The victim, McCormick argued, "has known for a long time that a priest of the diocese abused him."

A defense therapist will testify that the abuse victim could return to a normal life with only a year of regular counseling, McCormick told the jury.

After opening statements, which lasted about 90 minutes and were similar to attorneys' initial comments in past cases, the plaintiffs began their case. O'Neill is questioning former diocese official Father John McSweeney, who has testified during previous priest-abuse lawsuits about what church officials knew, when they knew it and what they did regarding allegedly abusive priests.

During Tuesday's jury selection, lawyers said proceedings could last through the end of next week.


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