Church to Settle Orphanage Abuse Claims
Agreement would bring end to 14 court cases in Vermont

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
April 9, 1999

The Vermont Roman Catholic Diocese has reached a tentative agreement to settle 14 court cases brought by people who claimed they were abused as children by nuns and others at a now-closed Burlington orphanage.

In letters filed with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, Middlebury lawyer James Swift confirmed the settlement plan and asked the court to postpone a hearing on four cases that had been scheduled for Wednesday.

"The parties have agreed to a global settlement involving all 14 cases," the Swift letter said. The settlement is dependent on having the plaintiffs in the 14 cases sign settlement documents now being prepared, Swift's letter said.

No other details were disclosed about the settlement package, which covers 10 cases in Chittenden County Superior Court and the four on appeal in federal court.

"We're getting close, that's all I can tell you," said Peter Langrock, senior partner at Swift's law firm, Langrock, Sperry & Wool, which along with Florida lawyer Robert Widman represented the 14 former St. Joseph's Orphanage residents.

"I'm not at liberty to comment on the current status of any of the claims," said David Cleary, a diocesan attorney based in Rutland.

Several of the 14 former residents whose cases would be covered by the settlement plan said they were told not to discuss the case but were relieved the matter might finally be put to rest.

"I can't say I'm happy, but it puts me more at peace with myself," said Barbara Hammons of Ludlow, Ky. "If nothing else comes out of this, at least it was brought forward and acknowledged before the public."

Roger Barbara of Sarasota, Fla., expressed similar feelings.

"I'm relieved it's over," he said. "I can start to get it out of my system, get my life back in perspective. I don't

have to worry anymore what's going on with the case."

The settlement, if formally approved by all the parties in the cases, would mark a turning point in the saga involving questions about what really went on inside the orphanage on North Avenue, which was closed in 1974.

More than 100 former residents, beginning with Joseph Barquin's claims in a 1993 lawsuit, have alleged during the past six years that as young children decades ago they were physically or sexually abused by nuns, priests or orphanage workers.

The abuse claims include stories of extreme physical disciplining, sexual molestation and repeated stories of incidents such being forced to eat their vomit and being locked in closets for as long as 36 hours for misbehaving.

Church lawyers have disputed the claims, challenging the veracity of some of the more dramatic allegations and saying no proof exists that any of it ever happened.

In 1996, however, the church agreed to a substantial out-of-court settlement with Barquin. It also has provided $5,000 to more than 60 former orphanage residents for the costs of therapy in return for an agreement not to pursue legal claims.

In late 1998, federal Judge J. Garvan Murtha dismissed five cases in federal court, agreeing with church lawyers that, among other things, the time for the former orphanage residents to sue the church had long past. The Wednesday hearing in New York was on the appeal of four of those Murtha decisions.

This week's settlement disclosure covers all but one of the pending cases of orphanage abuse. Katelin Hoffman of Burlington, who has no lawyer and is representing herself in her case in state court, said she rejected the church's offer.

"I was never really out for the money," she said. "I know I'm bound to lose, but I want to go through with the trial."

Orphanage lawsuit chronology

June 8, 1993: Joseph Barquin of Venice, Fla., sues Vermont Roman Catholic Diocese, claiming sexual and physical abuse by nun at orphanage in 1951.

Sept. 18, 1994: First-ever reunion of former orphanage residents staged in Colchester; 40 attend, more abuse claims surface.

Spring 1996: Bishop Kenneth Angell offers $5,000 to former orphanage residents with abuse claims who need counseling help in return for promise not to sue; more than 60 agree to offer.

July 12, 1996: Church settles with Barquin; number of lawsuits against church subsequently grows to 24.

Summer 1998: Judge J. Garvan Murtha throws out all five cases against church in federal court; four are appealed.

March 31, 1999: Lawyers notify federal appeals of tentative settlement in 14 state and federal cases.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.