Diocese heading to court
By KEVIN O’CONNOR
STAFF WRITER | March 22,2009
How do you convince Vermont’s Supreme Court to overturn a record $8.7 million child-sex verdict?
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington hopes to find out Wednesday in an unusual public hearing.
The state’s largest religious denomination, the target of nearly 40 negligence lawsuits in Chittenden Superior Court, was hit last spring with a record fine for its 1970s hiring and supervision of a pedophile priest.
The church is appealing the potentially bankrupting case to the Supreme Court. Justices not only will hear it this week, but also do so in front of students, teachers and the public at South Royalton’s Vermont Law School.
“We aren’t particularly looking for notorious cases, though this one probably is,” Justice John Dooley says. “We look for cases that involve the kind of questions law students are confronting in their education.”
In a landmark verdict last May, a 12-person jury awarded Perry Babel, a 40-year-old former Burlington altar boy, $950,000 in compensatory damages and $7,750,000 in punitive damages for claims that the former Rev. Edward Paquette fondled him 40 to 100 times three decades ago.
Babel’s lawyer, Jerome O’Neill, says the verdict was supported by church records that show the diocese had transferred Paquette to the plaintiff’s Burlington parish without telling anyone it knew the priest had molested boys first in Massachusetts, then in Indiana and the Vermont cities of Rutland and Montpelier.
A second jury awarded another man nearly $3.6 million in December for similar negligence involving the same priest.
“Each of those juries made their decision on the basis of what the diocese did,” O’Neill says.
But church lawyers “don’t think this was a fair trial for a number of reasons,” counsel Kaveh Shahi says, “ranging from the evidentiary rulings to is it appropriate under the First Amendment for a charitable religious institution to be punished with punitive damages?”
Even if the answer is yes, Shahi believes Babel’s jury should have limited the amount to no more than the $950,000 it awarded in compensatory damages. He points to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reduced the punitive damages in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill from an original $5 billion to the $500 million given in compensatory damages.
In response, O’Neill counters that the Exxon case “was decided within the maritime jurisdiction of the federal courts and does not apply here.”
The 118,000-member statewide diocese, having spent seven years and at least $2 million to resolve nine other negligence lawsuits, still faces 22 more cases involving seven retired or recently deceased pedophile priests. Of those pending, 17 involve Paquette, including the next set to be heard this fall.
In addition, it’s appealing two other Chittenden Superior Court verdicts against it, including the nearly $3.6 million given last December to 43-year-old former Burlington altar boy David Navari.
Upon announcement of that verdict, Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano, with tears in his eyes, apologized to the plaintiff and vowed to reassess the church’s handling of the cases. Navari, for his part, offered to place his court award in a Catholic-school trust if the diocese would defrock all priests “credibly accused of child molestation,” terminate their retirement benefits and post their names and photos on its Web site.
Three months later, the diocese has yet to contact Navari or other plaintiffs about a possible settlement.
“They’ve never responded in any way to his offer,” O’Neill says. “No contact, not a word — nothing has changed.”
The diocese doesn’t have insurance for priest misconduct, although it says it held a comprehensive liability policy from 1972 to 1978. But the church can’t find its copy of the policy — it’s now suing the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. in hopes of settling the issue — while its former insurer argues it isn’t liable for cases in which the holder is found negligent.
A judge has placed a lien on the diocese’s Burlington headquarters — a historic brick building on land overlooking Lake Champlain valued at $11,059,400 — to insure the $8.7 million verdict is paid if upheld in the appeal.
Wednesday’s hour-long hearing is scheduled for at 10 a.m. at Vermont Law School’s Oakes Hall in South Royalton.