The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
SNAP Press Statement
Jurors award $8.7 million to man abused by priest
Pedophile was moved to Indiana after reports of his crimes
Statement by Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, Outreach Director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (314 862 7688 home, 314 503 0003 cell)
We're grateful for this courageous survivor. By taking huge risks, enduring considerable pain, and choosing to go to trial, he's helped expose a corrupt church hierarchy. Kids are safer today because of his sacrifice, his suffering and his bravery.
Contact: David Clohessy (314-566-9790 cell, 314 645 5915 home), Barbara Blaine (312-399-4747), Joelle Casteix (949-322-9434), Barbara Dorris (314 862 7688)
8.7 million awarded in priest abuse case
By Sam Hemingway • Free Press Staff Writer • May 14, 2008
Audio: Bishop Matano's reaction
“They have sent a message,” attorney Jerome O’Neill, who represented the former altar boy, said moments after the verdict was announced. “The jury saw the evidence and made a fair decision with respect to it.”
A grim Bishop Salvatore Matano, who attended the six-day trial, said in a brief, separate interview that the size of the verdict could pose serious problems for the diocese. He called the looming predicament a “sad and tragic moment in our history.”
“I have to look very seriously at what this verdict means as it impacts on our services and the activities of the diocese,” Matano said. “I have to be very conscious that the verdict as it stands will have a very serious impact on a rural diocese; a small, rural diocese.”
Matano also signaled that the diocese might look for a way to settle the remaining clergy abuse cases rather than risk another costly trial and jury verdict.
“I do not want in any way to inflict any suffering or any pain upon the faithful in this diocese because of what happened in the past,” Matano said. “That is certainly not appropriate, and I am conscious of the universal needs of the diocese.”
Tuesday’s decision represents by far the largest monetary award to date in the collection of Vermont clergy abuse filed over the past decade. It is one of the largest awards ever issued in Vermont in state court civil lawsuit.
The case was brought in 2005 by a man, now 40 and living in Colorado, who alleged that as an altar boy at Christ the King Church in Burlington he was fondled from 40 to 100 times by the Rev. Edward Paquette between 1976 and 1978.
The Burlington Free Press does not identify the victims of alleged sexual crimes without their consent.
The case, like 18 others alleging similar claims about Paquette, contends the diocese was to blame because it hired Paquette in 1972 despite knowing that he had molested altar boys at parishes in Indiana and Massachusetts, and then kept him on duty after he sexually abused youths in Rutland in 1974.
The diocese suspended Paquette in 1978 after parents of Christ the King altar boys complained to then-Bishop John Marshall about Paquette’s conduct with their sons. Paquette is now retired and lives in Westfield, Mass.
Diocesan lawyers have argued the church relied on the best available advice of church psychologists when it hired Paquette and contended it should not be sued now for misconduct that occurred more than 30 years ago. Paquette was not a defendant in the case.
During the trial, jurors heard a nun testify she saw Paquette grope a child at her Montpelier school in the mid-1970s and five other altar boys tell how Paquette had fondled them.
O’Neill also showed the jury newly discovered internal church documents that suggested the diocese hired Paquette without checking out his time as a priest in Massachusetts, where he once was picked up by police after he was found in a parked car with a teenager.
Lawyers for the diocese mounted a modest defense, putting on one witness of their own via videotape and, when it came to the nun and other altar boys, asking few questions.
The jury was given the case Tuesday morning and reached a decision shortly after 3 p.m., less than five hours later. After the 12-person panel filed into the courtroom, Judge Matthew Katz was handed a piece of paper detailing the verdict.
The judge reviewed the paper briefly, then gave it to Carmen Cote, a court clerk. As she started to read the verdict, Katz interrupted her to speak to the court.
“I understand these are emotional cases,” Katz said. “Whatever the outcome, I expect the decorum of the court will be observed.”
Cote then read out loud the decision: “The jury finds that, one, that the plaintiff has proved his contention that the defendant Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington was negligent in its supervision of its priest, Edward Paquette, which negligence caused plaintiff harm.”
To compensate the plaintiff for that harm, she said the jury had awarded him $950,000 in compensatory damages. Those listening to the verdict remained silent.
Cote then read that because the jury also found that the diocese’s supervision of Paquette was reckless, it awarded the plaintiff $7,750,000 in punitive damages to punish the diocese for its misconduct. A legal assistant of O’Neill’s patted the back of the former altar boy, who was struggling to maintain his composure.
Diocesan lawyer Tom McCormick said he was taken aback by the jury’s decision and would likely appeal.
“Clearly, in hindsight we should have, could have looked at things differently,” McCormick said. “We expected that a Vermont jury would not unleash a number of this sort for behavior that took place 35 years ago.”
O’Neill said the amount of the award was justified but it was most important to his client that the jury believed his story.
“For none of these people is it about the money,” O’Neill said. “He was never counting the money. He’s not counting it now. He didn’t hear the second number. Because for him, it is a vindication in the sense that it is a recognition that a jury that has said ‘yes, what you went through was unfair.’ ”
Michael Gay of South Burlington, another former Christ the King altar boy who agreed to a $965,000 settlement in 2006 involving similar claims about the Paquette and the diocese, said he was ecstatic about the Tuesday verdict.
“Wow!” he said when told of the $8.7 million figure. “This is big. It feels good to know that a jury out there believes us and understands what happened to us.”
Tuesday’s decision was a markedly different outcome from a jury trial in another Vermont clergy abuse case rendered in December.
In that case, a jury awarded James Turner $15,000 in compensatory damages after deciding the diocese had poorly supervised the Rev. Alfred Willis, a newly ordained priest accused of performing a single sex act on Turner, then a teenager, in 1976. It also ruled Turner waited too long to file his case.
Tuesday’s verdict appeared based in large measure on the volumes of evidence showing that the diocese had prior knowledge of Paquette’s past conduct with boys when it hired him and then continued to employ him at two other parishes in Vermont after learning of the abuse incidents in Rutland.
That sort of evidence persuaded Katz, who had presided over the Turner trial, to rule that O’Neill and his firm could pursue punitive as well as compensatory damages.
“Plaintiff here has presented evidence that this errant priest had an almost 10-year history of molesting young boys,” Katz wrote in a mid-trial decision on the punitive damages issue. “The evidence of actual supervision is actually noteworthy for its total absence.”
It is unclear Tuesday whether the diocese has insurance to pay the $8.7 million award. A lawsuit filed by the diocese against its insurer regarding such coverage is pending in federal court.
Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests