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Catholic Church on Trial

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Burlington, Vermont - August 13, 2008

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington is in court again, just months after losing a multi-million dollar verdict in a priest sex abuse case. Another man has filed a civil suit, saying he, too, was molested by the same priest in the 1970s.

In both cases, the lawsuit is not against the accused abuser, Father Edward Paquette. Instead, plaintiffs claim the diocese was negligent in hiring a known pedophile. The jury in the previous case awarded the plaintiff a record $8.7 million.

In court Wednesday, the attorney for the diocese did not deny that Father Edward Paquette molested young boys in his parish 30 years ago.

"It is illegal now, it was illegal then," Tom McCormick said. "It's wrong now, it was wrong then."

But McCormick said the diocese should not be held liable. He asked the jury to consider this case in the context of the 1970s -- when medical knowledge, psychology and awareness of abuse were not what they are now.

"You will not see any evidence of recklessness or malice," he said. "You may see mistakes, you may see decisions you disagree with particularly with the lens of hindsight, but you won't see malice."

But the plaintiff's attorney argued that the Burlington diocese knew before they hired him that Paquette had a history of homosexual relationships with young boys in other states. Jerry O'Neill showed the jury a 1972 letter from Paquette's former diocese in Indiana regarding three incidents over six years. It raised concerns about keeping Paquette in that diocese.

"The territory is not large enough to provide another assignment," O'Neill read, "and the risk of scandal is thus aggravated." The writer recommended Paquette be assigned not to a parish, but to an "institutional chaplaincy with less likelihood of relapse."

The arguments by each attorney were largely the same that were made during the first sex abuse lawsuit three months ago.

The jury in that case found the diocese liable and awarded the plaintiff $8.7 million.

"After that record-setting verdict, it seems to me the defense must just be hoping they'll win these cases on appeal on a legal issue," said Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law School. She said the diocese faces an uphill battle and expects the outcome of this and future suits to be the same as the last.

"Every case has its own unique set of facts," she said. "Given that, however, it strikes me that much of what the jury is going to learn in this case, about the father, about what the diocese knew, are going to be very, very similar."

Last month, the diocese did settle out of court with another of Father Paquette's alleged victims. But Hanna said there's not much of an incentive for plaintiffs to do that. They're hoping for a sizable jury award, and they want their day in court -- what Hanna describes as a "cathartic part of the healing process."

After this trial there will still be 24 more abuse cases pending against the church, 15 of them involving Paquette.

Kate Duffy - WCAX News

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