Church Isn't Ready to Follow N.H. Lead

By Kevin O'Connor
Times Argus [Vermont]
May 10, 2003

The lawyer who spurred New Hampshire's Catholic diocese to settle 75 clergy misconduct cases for $6 million says Vermont church leaders are in no rush to follow.

Peter Hutchins of Manchester, N.H., says he contacted Vermont's Catholic diocese two months ago in hopes of settling a so-far unpublicized case of a man who says a priest sexually abused him in this state as an altar boy in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"I submitted this claim," Hutchins revealed last week, "pursuant to the Diocese of Burlington's apparent mechanism by which they claim to reach out to victims of sexual abuse by priests in Vermont."

Hutchins said he offered to settle the Vermont case like he did for 62 New Hampshire victims who made sexual abuse charges last fall against 28 priests, two lay employees and one member of a religious order.

In response, Hutchins said he received "a nice letter" from Vermont Catholic Bishop Kenneth Angell "expressing the hope that we could resolve my client's case as expeditiously as possible."

But when he spoke with one of the Vermont diocese's lawyers, William M. O'Brien of Winooski, "he only wanted to explore the technical defense of statute of limitations," and said the settlement formula used in New Hampshire would prove too costly in Vermont, "repeating that the diocese does not have insurance."

(In New Hampshire, insurance covered only about $2 million of the settlement, leaving the diocese there to pay $2.1 million from its unrestricted savings account and $900,000 from other reserves.)

Hutchins now is deciding whether to file a civil lawsuit against the Vermont diocese seeking unspecified financial damages for his client.

"If they want to act like a church, I will treat them like a church," he said. "If they want to act like a defendant, they will be treated as such. It is clear that the Diocese of Burlington would rather subject victims to questioning by lawyers on issues of technical defenses, without having any underlying intent to treat them fairly or expeditiously. This leads me to the inevitable conclusion that they have no real interest in reaching out to people who were sexually abused and raped by their priests."

In response, O'Brien confirmed having "preliminary discussions" with Hutchins, but said the New Hampshire lawyer has refused to identify the former altar boy making the charges. As a result, O'Brien said he hasn't been able to investigate the specific charges.

O'Brien said the diocese is sincere in its desire to assist those abused.

"Bishop Angell is a man of great compassion who truly wants to resolve any and all outstanding claims which may exist," he said.

But the diocese won't pay settlement money simply because someone threatens a lawsuit, O'Brien added.

"I have an obligation to my clients to see if this is a viable claim," he said.


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