Court to combine Vt. priest lawsuits
By KEVIN O'CONNOR STAFF WRITER | February 03,2010
A judge seeking to resolve 25 priest misconduct lawsuits against Vermont's Catholic Church has decided to hear 18 of them in one trial. But the state's largest religious denomination hopes to settle many if not all of the cases beforehand, in part by selling its multimillion-dollar Burlington headquarters and surrounding Lake Champlain property, it announced Tuesday.
Chittenden Superior Court Judge Helen Toor, facing a five-year-old stack of child-sex-abuse claims, has called for one trial to resolve all remaining civil cases tied to the former Rev. Edward Paquette, who worked in Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.
Three past juries have ruled the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington was negligent in hiring and supervising the now-retired pedophile priest. One issued a record $8.7 million verdict in May 2008, a second issued a nearly $3.6 million verdict in December 2008 and a third issued a $2.2 million verdict last October.
"Unless this court devoted all of its time to these cases to the exclusion of the many other cases pending on its docket — an option neither practical nor fair to the many other litigants waiting their turn — separate trials in all 25 cases will not be concluded for years," Toor wrote in a court order.
As a result, the judge wants one Paquette trial, another combined trial for three cases involving the former Rev. Alfred Willis (a priest in Burlington, Montpelier and Milton in the 1970s) and four separate trials on unrelated misconduct lawsuits.
Toor has yet to decide the specifics of her order. But she's urging lawyers to try to settle all the remaining cases through mediation before she holds a hearing on her plan in April.
In response, attorneys for both sides said Tuesday they had agreed to settle a Vermont Supreme Court appeal of the record $8.7 million verdict awarded to former Burlington altar boy Perry Babel two years ago.
"I'd love to share the amount with you," church counsel Thomas McCormick said, "but Mr. Babel requested the amount of the settlement be kept confidential. It is the hope of the diocese that further cases will be resolved in a just and charitable manner."
To help make that happen, the diocese says it will sell its 32-acre Burlington headquarters overlooking Lake Champlain — a historic property valued at $6 million — and its former Camp Holy Cross in Colchester.
"The diocese hopes the money will generate enough proceeds to settle all these cases," McCormick said.
The 118,000-member church has yet to decide where it will relocate the offices of Vermont Bishop Salvatore Matano and most of its statewide clerical and charitable programs.
Jerome O'Neill, the lawyer for all 25 plaintiffs, was both open to and dubious of the church's statement.
"It's easy to talk, which this diocese has done so many times," O'Neill said. "The survivors will wait to see if the diocese matches its words with actions."
The developments came at the same time Toor denied a church request to reject last October's $2.2 million verdict because two jurors encountered the plaintiff, former altar boy and current Burlington painting contractor Michael Keppler, during a smoking break.
After investigation, the judge wrote: "The juror in question did not recall exactly what he had said. The other juror reported that she merely observed him 'making small talk' and recalled something about the comfort of the chairs in the courtroom. She was not sure the juror even realized he was talking to the plaintiff. She nudged him and said 'We aren't supposed to be talking to him' and the other juror said 'Oh, whoops!'"
Toor went on to rule: "There was no evidence that either juror had been prejudiced in any way by the conversation, which appeared to be merely the result of poor judgment by a juror who was smoking a cigarette near where plaintiff was standing."
The diocese also had pointed to a post-verdict letter sent to the judge by another juror.
"After sitting through the last 2-1/2 days of deliberations, I was concerned with the potentially biased motives of two jurors," the unnamed panelist wrote. "One juror stated that he 'hates the Catholic Church' and another stated her concern that the Catholic school her niece or nephew attends may be affected."
But the judge said the letter alone wasn't enough to overturn the verdict.
"The only time a court may allow testimony about deliberations is when there are allegations of jury tampering or 'extraneous prejudicial information' coming to the jury from outside sources," Toor wrote. "This rule limiting inquiry into jury deliberations … is designed to avoid constant challenges to jury verdicts after the trial is over."