Vt. church fears another costly trial verdict
By KEVIN O'CONNOR Herald Staff | August 14,2008
BURLINGTON — No one is contesting the child-sex allegations. What's in contention: the potential millions of dollars in cost.
Vermont's Catholic Church doesn't dispute that former priest Edward Paquette repeatedly molested altar boy Thomas Murray three decades ago. But its lawyers, appearing Wednesday in Chittenden Superior Court, said the diocese shouldn't be liable to claims made by the now 40-year-old Waitsfield man in a trial under way.
The state's largest religious denomination, socked in May by a record $8.7 million verdict of negligence in its 1970s hiring and supervision of the pedophile priest, fears the latest civil lawsuit — just one of 20 regarding the retired clergyman — may bring an equally costly ruling.
"It would seem to us inherently unfair and something that should not be allowed," diocesan counsel Kaveh Shahi said. "This is a charitable entity, not a for-profit business."
But the plaintiff's lawyer said the diocese should be held accountable, as its records show it placed Paquette in Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976 without telling anyone it knew the priest had molested boys first in Massachusetts and then in Indiana.
"We are suing the diocese because it refuses to accept any responsibility," attorney Jerome O'Neill said. "When the head of a diocese learns a priest has sexually abused children, he must do something. If the diocese does not follow these basic steps, it is helping a priest conduct further crimes against children."
The lawyer, standing before a six-man, six-woman jury, held a photo of a blond-haired child with a pet raccoon.
"We're dealing with a little boy, not the man who sits at the table."
Murray, his lawyer said, is ready to testify that the priest placed him in his lap, covered his young mouth and grasped his genitals 20 to 50 times from September 1977 to March 1978 in the sacristy of Burlington's Christ the King Church.
The alleged abuse caused Murray, then a 9-year-old fourth-grader, to have nightmares, avoid religion and turn to alcohol and drugs. As an adult, the plaintiff says he has suffered from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and problems with physical intimacy, leading to a divorce with the mother of his child.
"Tom feels it difficult to trust anyone, because if a priest can betray your trust, no one can be trusted," O'Neill told the jury. "Your verdict must include the money to cover those harms and losses."
The plaintiff's lawyers will wait until closing arguments to recommend a specific number. But in the case that resulted in the $8.7 million verdict, counsel suggested compensatory damages of $5,000 per incident or $10,000 per year of suffering and additional punitive damages of $6 million to $12 million.
Church lawyer Thomas McCormick, who made controversial closing statements in the $8.7 million case, changed his tone with opening arguments in the latest lawsuit. Last spring McCormick tried to cast doubt with declarations like "Vermont isn't like California — this isn't a state where lawsuits turn into lotteries." On Wednesday, the attorney sounded more conciliatory.
"Father Paquette should not have fondled Tom Murray," McCormick began. "Not once. Not 20 times. That's absolutely something we all hold true. It's illegal now. It was illegal then. It's wrong now. It was wrong then. It's immoral now. It was immoral then. Tom Murray has suffered because of that. Just how much remains to be seen in this trial."
Not mentioning names, church counsel alluded to the recent case of Brooke Bennett, a 12-year-old Randolph girl found dead in July after her alleged kidnapping by an uncle with a record of sexual assault.
"We still haven't figured out child abuse in this society," McCormick said. "The challenge will be looking back 30, 40 years at old documents in which Bishop (John) Marshall and the priest placed great stock on the medical profession. At the time, they thought of it as a moral failing and a mental illness that could be treated."
Marshall, who served from 1972 to 1992 and died in 1994, was said to have followed since-debunked advice of psychiatrists who at one point hoped Paquette could be cured through 11 sessions of electric shock therapy.
"Looking back at it now, you think that's crazy," the church lawyer said. "But the question is not what does it look like now, but what did it look like then? Times change. Try to put it in context within those times."
McCormick went on to question why the plaintiff had yet to seek mental health counseling and whether his recollections were the result of "symptom magnification."
"Lawsuits can have an effect of warping how people perceive things," the attorney said. "Let there be no mistake, what he experienced is bad and unpleasant to think about, but we're going to be asking questions about how he dealt with it."
The diocese also wants mercy.
"They will be asking for a lot of money," McCormick said. "We're going to ask you to keep it in perspective, to bear in mind the times and state of medical knowledge back in the '70s. Our position will be perhaps Bishop Marshall was ill-advised, but he wasn't reckless. He was mistaken, but he wasn't malicious. We'll be asking you to be fair."
But at least two signs show the court is open to another big verdict. Questioning potential jurors Tuesday, O'Neill's partner, John Evers, asked if anyone believed in a cap on damages. No one did.
Judge Matthew Katz, for his part, denied a church call to ban punitive awards.
"I understand the logic of 'We've learned our lesson,'" Katz said Wednesday, "but the case law around the country is that post-wrongdoing remedies by the defendant are not admissible to mitigate punitive damages."
The Vermont diocese has spent six years and at least $2 million to resolve nine previous misconduct lawsuits (not including May's record ruling), yet it still faces 21 similar cases involving eight former priests.
To protect its local assets, the diocese in 2006 placed each of its more than 120 parishes in separate charitable trusts. That has left its remaining property vulnerable. The court has placed a lien on the diocese's Burlington headquarters — a historic $11 million brick building at 351 North Ave., on land overlooking Lake Champlain — to ensure it can pay the $8.7 million jury verdict if it's upheld by the Supreme Court.
The latest trial, set to continue today, could last two weeks.
Contact Kevin O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.