Vermont Diocese with $8.7M Abuse Verdict Can’t Find Insurance Policy

June 23, 2008

Many Roman Catholics believe that the worst of the clergy sex abuse scandal is over. But in the Diocese of Burlington, it’s deepening.

The case of one cleric, assigned to Vermont parishes in the 1970s despite warnings from an Indiana bishop that the priest was suspected of molesting boys, is battering the local church.

Last month, a former altar boy who said the Rev. Edward Paquette molested him repeatedly three decades ago won an $8.7 million jury verdict in a negligence lawsuit against the diocese.

Attorneys for the diocese say they have insurance that could cover part of the $8.7 million payout, but they can’t find their copy of the policy and have sued the insurer to get it.

To make certain that the settlement is paid, a judge put a $10.2 million lien on the diocese’s central offices. An appeal is pending. But even if the verdict is overturned, 16 more people who said Paquette molested them in Vermont have filed their own claims.

“Clearly, the diocese can’t afford 18 more of these $8.7 million awards,” said Chuck Zech, a Villanova University economist who researches church finances.

It’s an expense the Vermont church will have to scramble to avoid.

Paquette is not known to have faced criminal charges, but he acknowledged in a 2006 deposition that he was “sexually involved” with boys while in parishes in Massachusetts, Indiana and Vermont. That deposition was for a negligence claim brought by a former Vermont altar boy who reached a nearly $1 million settlement with the Burlington Diocese.

The diocese, which serves all the state’s 148,000 Catholics, put its individual parishes under charitable trusts two years ago to shield them from what Burlington Bishop Salvatore Matano called “unbridled, unjust and terribly unreasonable assault.”

The diocese also faces at least six additional negligence cases involving other Vermont clergy.

Matano is considering selling property — including a Lake Champlain site that has been used for more than 20 years as a summer camp for children with cancer.

The accuser’s attorney in the recent jury trial, Jerome F. O’Neill, called it a publicity stunt to generate sympathy for the diocese. He contends that the church was considering selling Camp Holy Cross before the recent verdict.

Zech said that the diocese should have sought bankruptcy protection, as six other American dioceses did in response to multimillion-dollar abuse claims. But Tom McCormick, a lawyer who represents the diocese, said church officials would only file for Chapter 11 as a last resort.

Beyond money, parishioners’ trust in the diocese is at stake.

Three of the pending Paquette lawsuits are headed to trial beginning in August, with juries likely to see documents and hear testimony about how church officials knew of Paquette’s past, yet allowed him to work in Vermont.

Paquette, 79, who is still a priest but has been barred from any church work, could not be reached for comment on this story. He has no listed telephone number for his Westfield, Mass., home, and could not be reached through his former Vermont attorney or through the Diocese of Springfield, Mass.

He had served as a pastor in Fall River, Mass., and Fort Wayne, Ind., before applying to the Burlington Diocese in 1972. He said he wanted to be near his parents in Westfield.

At the time, Bishop Leo Pursley of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend told Vermont Bishop John Marshall that Paquette had been accused of molesting boys. If the Burlington Diocese decided to take the priest, he should be assigned to an institutional chaplaincy — a hospital or senior center away from children, Pursley said, according to church documents entered as evidence in the recent jury trial.

But Vermont church officials ignored the advice, assigning Paquette to a parish in Rutland, then transferring him twice over six years — to Montpelier, then Burlington — after he was accused of abuse in each church.

He sometimes groped altar boys while giving “pony rides” after Mass in which he sat them on his knee and groped them, according to the altar boy who won the $8.7 million judgment. The man, who does not want his name published, testified last month that he and other altar boys nicknamed Paquette “Father Pockets,” joking that he always had something in his pocket for them.

The 40-year-old Lakewood, Colo., man served Mass with the priest as an 8-year-old and said he was molested by Paquette 40 to 100 times over two years. He said he never reported the abuse because Paquette was “the next closest thing to God,” but years later went “ballistic” after learning about Paquette’s history and the warnings to church officials about the priest. The Associated Press does not publish the names of sexual assault victims without their consent.

Church officials have defended their handling of abuse claims in the 1970s, saying that at the time, it was believed prayer and counseling could cure sexual attraction to children.

Matano declined to be interviewed. He told Vermont Catholics in a letter read at Mass on May 18 that he hopes that the “needed ministries will continue uninterrupted and parishes remain unaffected by a burden that does not belong to them.”

O’Neill argued that the diocese has more than enough resources to fund the settlements, including $42 million worth of property in Burlington alone.

“It’s payment of a past-due debt, ever since Bishop Marshall and other parts of this diocese permitted those priests to abuse boys,” O’Neill said.

But Zech said that if the diocese sells its real estate to fund the settlements “they might as well cease to exist.”

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