Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New lawsuits
Burlington Diocese faces new abuse lawsuits
By Sam Hemingway, Free Press Staff Writer • Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nine months after the state’s Roman Catholic Diocese paid $17.6 million to settle 26 cases alleging child sexual abuse by priests in Vermont in the 1970s, five new cases making similar molestation claims have been filed in court.

The lawsuits were filed between May and October last year, but due to a technical error were not posted on the Chittenden Superior Court’s public docket until Monday, following an inquiry about their status by the Burlington Free Press.

Four of the cases involve claims by former altar boys that they were molested by the Rev. Edward Paquette. Three of the cases focus on incidents that allegedly occurred while he was a parish priest in Burlington between 1976 and 1978, the fourth while he was based at a church in Rutland several years earlier.

The fifth case alleges abuse by the Rev. Alfred Willis when he was a parish priest in Burlington in the late 1970s. One of the Paquette cases has since been transferred to federal court, records show. All five cases seek unspecified financial damages for harm allegedly inflicted on the former altar boys.

Jerome O’Neill, the lawyer representing the alleged victims in the five cases, said last May’s $17.6 million settlement of all pending molestation cases against the diocese never was a guarantee that more cases making similar claims would not be filed in the future.

“I know the diocese is annoyed that we have brought more cases,” O’Neill said Tuesday. “It’s very hard to come forward with a claim like this. Sometimes it takes longer for someone to deal with an issue of past child sexual abuse.”

O’Neill said his office routinely investigates the veracity of such priest molestation claims and only proceeds with legal action when it’s determined that any current struggles that alleged victims are experiencing are due to the abuse they say they incurred.

Thomas McCormick, a Burlington lawyer for the diocese, declined comment Tuesday afternoon.

The $17.6 million settlement reached in May between the diocese and O’Neill’s law firm cleared the docket at the time of all pending priest sexual abuse claims, some of which had been filed five years earlier.

Paquette and Willis had their priestly duties suspended in the late 1970s after parents complained to the diocese about their conduct. Both later were defrocked and today live in retirement, Paquette in Massachusetts and Willis in Virginia.

The lawsuits contend, among other things, that the diocese knew Paquette and Willis had histories of molesting boys but continued to employ them and put them in position to harm other youths, including the plaintiffs in the five cases.

The Free Press does not publish the identities of alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

To pay the $17.6 million settlement last year, Bishop Salvatore Matano announced the diocese would have to sell its 32.4-acre diocesan headquarters on North Avenue and the former Camp Tara-Holy Cross property on Mallets Bay in Colchester.

The headquarters site was purchased in December by Burlington College for $10 million. The 26.5-acre Camp Tara-Holy Cross land remains on the market.

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