Vt. Judge Orders Release of Records

By Emily Stone
Burlington Free Press (Burlington, VT)
December 17, 2002

The Roman Catholic Diocese must turn over 52 years' worth of records on any sexual conduct by any priests as part of a lawsuit that alleges sexual abuse by a specific priest.

Chittenden Superior Court Judge Matthew Katz made the ruling at a hearing Monday in the case against the Rev. James McShane. St. Albans native Michael Bernier has accused McShane of abusing him as a boy while McShane was a priest at St. Mary's Parish in St. Albans.

Bernier, 45, now lives in California. McShane is on a leave of absence as pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Rutland.

The diocese must produce any records on priests' sexual activity since 1952, even if the conduct was not alleged to be abuse. The records will be turned over to Bernier and his lawyer, but will be kept confidential beyond that. Diocese lawyer David Cleary said he doesn't know how long it will take to sort through the hundreds of files.

Cleary said in court that the diocese has been willing to hand over McShane's file. He said there is nothing in the file that points to sexual misconduct by McShane. Cleary called the request for 52 years of files "a fishing expedition."

Bernier's lawyer, Je rome O'Neill, said the additional files are needed to see what the diocese knew and did about problem priests.

"It would indicate whether or not the diocese was aware of problems," he said.

O'Neill said that Bernier's case is strong. He said after court that even if the new records show nothing, he believes he can win the case. Bernier is suing both McShane and the diocese. The suit does not specify a dollar amount that Bernier is seeking.

Bernier alleges that he was sexually abused by McShane when Bernier was in his early teens in the late 1960s or early 1970s, O'Neill said.

Cleary asked Katz to deny O'Neill's request for the records, saying the case should stay focused on Bernier and McShane for the time being. If Bernier's case becomes stronger as it progresses, then the court can decide if the diocese should produce the extra records, Cleary said.

Katz said the extra records could have bearing on Bernier's case and he didn't think it would be too burdensome for the diocese to produce the records.

Earlier this year, the diocese turned over similar records to the Attorney General's Office, which is investigating about 40 past or present priests accused of sexual misconduct. The attorney general's investigation only pertains to living priests. The records the diocese must now hand over to Bernier are for all priests, both living and dead.

O'Neill said he has had conversations with other people about possible priest misconduct. The records will help determine if there is validity to these allegations.

He spoke after court about one alleged incident in particular. He said he has talked to two people who said they saw McShane in possession of nude photos of boys in the 1970s and they alerted the bishop. O'Neill said the bishop at that time was not current Bishop Kenneth Angell.

McShane's lawyer, Matthew Harnett, said after court that O'Neill's comments about the pictures were made only to the media and not the judge. "This leads me to believe that this information is shaky at best," Harnett said.


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