Church Appeals $8.7 Million Verdict in Priest Case

By John Curran
March 25, 2009

SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. (AP) Calling an $8.7 million jury verdict in a priest sex case "inherently unfair," the Diocese of Burlington appealed Wednesday to Vermont's highest court in a bid to have it overturned.

The church's lawyers say jurors in the trial shouldn't have been allowed to consider punitive damages and that a judge failed to tell them that they had to find that the Diocese acted with malice.

The church also contends that Chittenden Superior Court Judge Matthew Katz erred in not allowing the jury to decide whether the former altar boy's claim was filed within the statute of limitations.

A lawyer for the 40-year-old man told the Vermont Supreme Court that punitive damages were in order since the diocese failed to warn its supervising priests and its parishioners about the Rev. Edward Paquette, even though he had a history of molestation allegations before he came to Vermont.

A jury awarded the money in May to a 40-year-old Lakewood, Colo., man who sued over sexual abuse he said he suffered as a fourth- and fifth-grader at Christ the King Church in Burlington in the 1970s.

The Associated Press does not identify victims of sexual assault without their consent.

The man testified that Paquette groped him routinely, touching his genitals through his clothing and pressing him against his own genitals while giving what he called "pony rides" to him and other altar boys.

Paquette is named in dozens of sex abuse suits alleging negligent supervision by the diocese. He was suspended from practicing as a priest in 1978 and now lives in Westfield, Mass. He was not a defendant in the Colorado man's suit.

Plaintiffs' attorneys say the church knew Paquette had molested boys in Massachusetts and Indiana before coming to Vermont.

A bishop in Fort Wayne, Ind., told Diocese of Burlington officials that if they did hire him, he should be given an assignment where he wouldn't be in regular contact with children, according to trial testimony.

But he was hired in 1972 with no such restrictions, eventually serving in parishes in Rutland, Montpelier and Burlington.

The church doesn't deny the abuse took place but says then-Bishop John Marshall believed at the time that pedophilia could be cured with prayer and psychological treatment, and that he relied on experts' advice in allowing Paquette to be around children.

In the trial, a jury awarded $950,000 in compensatory damages and $7.75 million in punitive damages to the man, agreeing the Diocese was negligent.

"The trial, in our view, was inherently unfair," said Kaveh Shahi, a lawyer for the diocese who argued the appeal Wednesday.

The plaintiff's appellate attorney, Elizabeth Miller, said the church lied to parishioners about why Paquette was transferred, and that it failed to take any precautions to keep him away from children. Miller called him "a bad seed."

The justices pressed her on why the suit wasn't filed until 2005. Miller said it was because the victim didn't realize the diocese's part in his abuse until he read a newspaper article that said it knew about the prior allegations against Paquette before hiring him.

Under Vermont's statute of limitations, such claims are legitimate if filed within six years of the date when victims discover that their difficulties were caused by abuse they believe was the diocese's fault.

The appeal arguments were heard at Vermont Law School, where the Vermont Supreme Court holds session once a year.


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