Vt. church settles new abuse cases
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | January 10,2013
AP File Photo
The former Rev. Edward Paquette, pictured in Massachusetts in 2005, has been the subject of 35 lawsuits filed against Vermont’s Catholic Church.
Three years after settling almost 30 priest misconduct lawsuits for more than $20 million, Vermont’s Catholic Church will pay an undisclosed sum to resolve a dozen new cases and potentially end a near-bankrupting 11-year sexual-abuse saga.
Lawyers for the first of 12 new plaintiffs arrived at U.S. District Court in Burlington on Wednesday to start a second round of civil trials charging the statewide Roman Catholic diocese with negligence over the past half-century in hiring and supervising pedophile priests.
Church counsel responded by offering a blanket settlement for all outstanding lawsuits brought by former Vermont altar boys and young male churchgoers. Diocesan attorney Thomas McCormick and Burlington lawyer Jerome O’Neill, representing all but two of the dozens of past and present plaintiffs, confirmed the agreement within minutes, although neither would reveal any financial figures.
“The diocese has asked us not to specify the amount and we have agreed,” O’Neill said. “But on behalf of our clients, we are pleased to resolve the cases.”
Added Hinesburg lawyer Beth Danon, handling the one new case outside O’Neill’s office: “It’s settled in concept, but we haven’t signed anything yet. I’d be very cautious to say anything more until I see the agreement.”
The state’s largest religious denomination had hoped to rid itself of 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 others from filing later lawsuits.
O’Neill, whose office has submitted some four dozen claims against the church since 2002, believes Wednesday’s agreement could finally cap the issue in Vermont.
The lawyer has long argued that the clock on the state’s six-year statute of limitations for filing civil cases started not on the date of abuse but instead the day the public learned the church was culpable — in this instance, April 19, 2006, when the diocese first publicly acknowledged it knew at least one of its priests had abused boys before assignment without warning to a local parish.
Under that reasoning, accusers could have submitted claims until the spring of last year — something that happened after news in 2011 of a similar sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State University.
“There are people who were molested who, for personal reasons, chose not to bring cases, but the diocese is probably closing out the cases that would or could have been brought,” O’Neill said Wednesday. “It’s not necessarily impossible, but it would be difficult going forward to bring a new case.”
After Vermont’s 118,000 Catholics first learned of a national priest misconduct scandal a decade ago, the state’s attorney general’s office reviewed allegations against 10 practicing and 30 past clergymen but didn’t charge anyone because the claims found credible were too old to prosecute under various criminal statutes of limitations.
Accusers, however, have been free to file civil lawsuits. Before the $20 million settlement in 2010, the church spent at least $2 million more to end nine earlier cases.
Ten of the newest claims — including the one a former Rutlander brought to court Wednesday — alleged the diocese was negligent in hiring and supervising the former Rev. Edward Paquette, who was assigned to Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976. Now 84 and living in Massachusetts, Paquette was 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 made the same assertion regarding the former Rev. Alfred Willis, a priest in Burlington, Montpelier and Milton before being defrocked in 1985. Now 68 and living in Virginia, Willis was the subject of five past lawsuits that resulted in more than $2.5 million in payouts.
And the last involved 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. Dussault, who died in 1987 at age 78, served in Derby Line along the Canadian border in the 1960s.
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 have sought resolution of the situation in federal court.
“In arriving at this settlement, the diocese wishes to assure the faithful that all monies raised for charitable purposes, including the annual Bishop’s Fund appeal, have not been used to meet the financial responsibility incurred from this and previous settlements,” church leaders said in a statement.
The agreement also drew a response from the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“Every settlement like this is a mixed bag,” director David Clohessy said. “On one hand, a resolution like this helps victims move forward. At the same time, however, it prevents the complicity of Catholic officials from being publicly exposed in court. We hope that Vermont citizens and Catholics will see that Catholic officials continue to be secretive about clergy sex crimes and responsive to victims largely only when facing external pressure to do so.”