Burlington Priest Molestation Case Nears End

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
October 7, 2009

Closing arguments are set for this morning in Burlington in a trial involving a former altar boy who sued the state's Roman Catholic diocese, claiming the church was to blame for his molestation at the hands of the Rev. Edward Paquette in the 1970s.

The former altar boy, now 44, is seeking monetary damages from the diocese. He contends officials knew Paquette molested boys in three states, including Vermont, yet assigned him to Burlington's Christ the King Church in 1976, where the abuse at issue in this case took place.

The former altar boy has claimed Paquette fondled him 20 to 25 times between 1976 and 1978. He says he has struggled with depression and substance abuse problems because of the molestation.

The Free Press does not publish the names of alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

Tuesday, former diocesan Chancellor Wendell Searles testified at Chittenden Superior Court on behalf of the diocese. He told the jury the decision by then-Bishop John Marshall to hire Paquette in 1972, while misguided, was done with good intentions.

"He just had that tremendous desire to save this priest," Searles said of Marshall.

"That's not to say he didn't have any desire to protect kids. He certainly had no intention of hurting anybody, especially children. Unfortunately, the way he handled this situation is beyond our understanding as we look at it today."

Marshall was bishop of the Vermont diocese from 1972 to 1992. He died in 1994.

The diocese does not dispute the abuse occurred but contends Marshall relied on the advice of church psychologists and doctors who periodically treated Paquette for his sexual attraction to boys and believed his problem was under control.

Searles described Marshall as an "extremely conscientious man" who, because he led such an austere life, left few clues as to why he handled the situation the way he did.

"One thing I am absolutely certain of is that Bishop Marshall was not an evil man," Searles said.

Under questioning by Jerome O'Neill, an attorney for the former altar boy, Searles acknowledged the effort by Marshall to salvage Paquette's priesthood came at the expense of the altar boys Paquette molested in Vermont.

"That's why we can't understand this," Searles said.

"But that's what happened," O'Neill shot back.

"Yes," Searles said.

Searles was one of just two witnesses to testify for the diocese as part of its defense against claims that, by hiring Paquette, it put a known child molester in a position to molest more boys.

The other witness was Ed Williamson, a local sub- stance-abuse and mental-health counselor.

Williamson told the jury the former altar boy made no mention of being molested as a child by a priest while seeking counseling for substance abuse in 2001.

The trial, which began Sept. 29, is the fourth brought by former Burlington altar boys who say Paquette abused them and the diocese is to blame. Two earlier trials resulted in multimillion-dollar verdicts against the diocese; a third ended with a hung jury.

In all, 23 former altar boys molested by Paquette have sued the diocese.


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