Vt. church faces new abuse cases
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | January 08,2013
Three years after paying more than $20 million to settle almost 30 priest misconduct lawsuits, Vermont’s Catholic Church faces a new challenge: Will the first of a dozen new cases go to trial this week or can it forge an agreement to end them all?
The state’s largest religious denomination had hoped to rid itself of nearly a decade of lurid headlines and legal headaches in 2010 when it sold its historic 32-acre Burlington headquarters and 26-acre Colchester Camp Holy Cross to make good with all its then-known accusers. But that settlement didn’t preclude other former altar boys and young male churchgoers alleging sexual abuse from filing later lawsuits.
Lawyers for the first of 12 new plaintiffs are scheduled to argue their case in U.S. District Court in Burlington starting Wednesday. At a pretrial hearing Monday, Judge William Sessions III asked attorneys for both sides about the possibility of a settlement.
“The response to that would have to be very nuanced,” Burlington lawyer Jerome O’Neill, representing all but two of the three dozen past and present plaintiffs, said without elaborating.
Church counsel Thomas McCormick said nothing publicly — “no comment,” he told a reporter after — but asked to approach the bench before speaking to the judge privately.
Ten new civil claims — including the one to be tried this week — allege the diocese was negligent in hiring and supervising the former Rev. Edward Paquette, the subject of 25 previous lawsuits and three past jury verdicts: a record $8.7 million in May 2008, nearly $3.6 million in December 2008 and $2.2 million in October 2009.
One new case makes the same assertion regarding the former Rev. Alfred Willis, the subject of five past lawsuits that resulted in more than $2.5 million in payouts.
And the last involves similar problems with the late Rev. Joseph Dussault, a new name on the list of 40 recently practicing, retired or deceased Vermont priests implicated over the past half-century.
After Vermont’s 118,000 Catholics learned of a national priest misconduct scandal in 2002, the state’s attorney general’s office reviewed allegations against 10 practicing and 30 past clergymen but didn’t charge anyone criminally because the claims found credible were too old to prosecute under various statutes of limitations.
Accusers, however, have been free to file civil lawsuits. In 2006, the Vermont diocese paid a then-record $965,000 to settle the first case about to go to trial. Soon after, the church was hit by three multimillion-dollar civil court jury verdicts that it immediately appealed to the state Supreme Court.
By the fall of 2009, state courts faced so many Catholic lawsuits — more than two dozen at the time — a judge proposed merging a majority of them into an unprecedented joint trial. That winner-take-all prospect helped lead to the 2010 settlement, which gave 26 accusers a collective $17.65 million to drop their pending cases and granted an unspecified sum, confirmed to be at least $3 million, to three more plaintiffs who won jury verdicts facing appeal.
The diocese went on to sell its century-and-a-quarter-old headquarters overlooking Lake Champlain — featuring the largest open tract of land in the state’s most populous city — to Burlington College for $10 million and its Camp Holy Cross property along Malletts Bay in Colchester to a local businessman for $4 million.
The diocese doesn’t have current insurance for such problems but says it held a comprehensive liability policy with the U.S. Fidelity and Guaranty Co. when much of the alleged abuse occurred in the 1970s. The church can’t find a copy of its coverage plan, however, so lawyers for both sides are seeking resolution of the situation in federal court.
The newest claims could prove costly. The 10 involving Paquette — now 84 and living in Massachusetts — allege the former priest molested five minors after his arrival in Rutland in 1972, one after his reassignment to Montpelier in 1974 and four more after his relocation to Burlington in 1976.
The latest lawsuit regarding Willis — now 68 and living in Virginia — alleges the former priest molested a minor in Montpelier before the clergyman was defrocked in 1985.
And the case involving Dussault, who died in 1987 at age 78, accuses the late priest of misconduct with an altar boy from 1963 to 1967 while serving in Derby Line along the Canadian border.
This week’s case — in which a former Rutlander says he was 13 years old when Paquette abused him in 1974 — is filed in U.S. District Court because the plaintiff now lives in California.
Lawyer O’Neill said Monday: “We’re prepared for and will present our client’s case to a jury and we anticipate being successful.”
A state civil court in Burlington is set to hear all the rest of the lawsuits in trials yet to be scheduled. The second wave of cases is sparking national interest.
“We hope that Vermont citizens will pay close attention to the proceedings and that Vermont Catholics will ask tough questions of their church hierarchy,” David Clohessy, director of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said this month in a statement. “Many would like to believe that this crisis is over. It’s not.”