Saturday, October 15, 2005

 

Plaintiff seeks 13 seperate trials in priest abuse cases


Burlington, Vermont - The lawyer who has filed 13 priest misconduct lawsuits against the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington told a judge Friday he wants each tried separately.

Jerome O'Neill has filed civil lawsuits in Burlington's Chittenden Superior Court on behalf of 13 clients charging five former Vermont priests with child sexual abuse.

Judge Ben Joseph, in a hearing Friday, asked O'Neill if he wanted to consolidate the charges into one lawsuit. O'Neill said no.

"We think the cases are sufficiently different that consolidating is not an option," the lawyer said after the hearing.

O'Neill, chairman of the Burlington Police Commission and a former federal prosecutor, has a track record of winning such individual cases. The lawyer compelled the diocese to settle one priest misconduct case last year for a $150,000 cash payment — the largest such agreement in state history — and another for $120,000.

Eight of the 13 latest cases involve Edward Paquette, a former priest who worked in Burlington, Montpelier and Rutland from 1972 to 1978. The priest, now 76 and retired in Massachusetts, hung up when phoned by a reporter.

O'Neill also has filed one case each involving former Vermont priests James Dunn, age unknown, James McShane, 64, and George Paulin, 62; and two cases against Alfred Willis, 61. None of the priests could be reached for comment Friday.

The diocese already has paid $20,000 to settle another case against Paulin, a former Ludlow pastor who also worked in the state's Northeast Kingdom; $120,000 to settle another case against McShane, a former Rutland pastor who worked as director of the state church's Office of Youth Ministry and chaplain for the Vermont Boy Scouts and Catholic Camp Holy Cross in Colchester; and a record $150,000 in another case against Willis, a former priest in Burlington, Milton and Montpelier.

The diocese doesn't have insurance for such cases and therefore must pay for settlements with money and other assets on hand. O'Neill had sought liens on church property of between $2.5 million to $4.5 million each on several of his latest lawsuits. The court, however, denied those requests at an earlier hearing.

The latest round of lawsuits comes three years after state Attorney General William Sorrell launched an investigation against almost a dozen recently practicing Vermont Catholic priests and 30 former clergymen. Sorrell hasn't charged anyone criminally because the claims found credible are too old to prosecute under the state's various statutes of limitations.

Accusers, however, can press charges through civil lawsuits. The diocese has spent almost $400,000 in the past two years to settle at least four previous lawsuits out of court. Church leaders stress they aren't paying settlements with regular collection money or the diocesan Bishop's Fund, but instead from a separate account designed for unforeseen circumstances.

According to the diocese, more than 30 people have reported credible charges against at least 25 priests in the past five decades, with all alleged sexual misconduct occurring before 1989. All but one of the clergy have died, resigned, retired or aren't allowed to practice publicly. One priest was placed on leave in 2002 and reinstated the same year after review by the attorney general.


See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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