Healing could cost church millions - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Healing could cost church millions

Burlington, Vermont - February 9, 2010

The Catholic Diocese of Burlington is sitting on millions of dollars of property that could be used to settle priest sex abuse cases. The diocese says it's willing to part with land and buildings to start the healing process.

"The diocese has plenty of assets," lawyer Jerry O'Neill said.

O'Neill represents former altar boys who say they were victimized by pedophile priests in the Burlington diocese 30 years ago. Juries have awarded millions to victims-- some have settled for far less before trial.

"The diocese wants healing here," said Tom McCormick, the lawyer for the diocese.

But the question is how will the Catholic Church pay for that healing? A search of Burlington land records shows the church holds three lakefront parcels on North Avenue, including the diocese headquarters. It's more than 33 acres of residentially-zoned land the city values at nearly $20 million.

"The diocese is going to use the money to settle the cases," McCormick said.

The church's former Camp Holy Cross property on Lake Champlain could bring millions more. The town of Colchester does not have an assessed value on the 26-acre camp because the diocese is a nonprofit. A nearby property with 7.5 fewer acres sold for more than $2 million dollars in 2006, but sources in town government tell WCAX News they expect the Holy Cross land to go for closer to $10 million.

O'Neill says he'll believe it when he sees it.

"The diocese has been talking about selling the properties for years," O'Neill said.

He'll go along with Judge Helen Toor's request to settle 18 abuse cases through mediation, but O'Neill's not optimistic.

"We've mediated several times previously with the diocese, almost always fruitless," he said. "We don't anticipate that we'll get any further with them than we've gotten before, but we'll be there, be energetic, receptive, and we'll see if we can get them resolved."

Successful mediation would likely mean smaller payouts than past multi-million dollar jury awards which have led to appeals instead of the closure both sides say they want. The diocese says it believes land sales will help it raise the money it'll need.

"The victims are people of goodwill, too, so the hope is there will be enough to go around," McCormick said.

Judge Toor wanted a mediator selected by March 1, hoping the sessions can begin in early April. If they don't work, then Jerry O'Neill says a unit of 18 of his clients could go to trial by late Spring or into the Summer. Those 18 clients all say they were abused by Father Edward Paquette, but O'Neill says there are nine more cases on top of the 18-- three of them involving Father Alfred Willis. Those will also be tried as a unit. Then there are six more plaintiffs.

Jack Thurston - WCAX News

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