Church Case Back in Court This Week

By Kevin O'Connor
Times Argus [Vermont]
July 3, 2006

The state's chief administrative judge will hold a hearing Wednesday on a Vermont Catholic Church request that she bar a trial judge from presiding over almost two dozen priest misconduct lawsuits.

The statewide Diocese of Burlington decided to seek the removal of Chittenden Superior Court Judge Ben Joseph from its cases after he oversaw a record $965,000 settlement in an initial lawsuit this spring.

The church claims Joseph's rulings in the civil case of Michael Gay versus the Rev. Edward Paquette — most specifically, the fact the judge let lawyers talk publicly after the settlement — has jeopardized the diocese's ability to receive a fair trial in the future.

The church had asked Joseph to recuse himself, but he instead forwarded the request to the state's chief administrative judge, Amy Davenport. She is scheduled to hold a one-hour hearing on the motion July 5 at 1 p.m. at Washington Superior Court in Montpelier.

Davenport could announce a decision at that time or wait to issue one at a later date.

Church lawyer David Cleary has criticized many of Joseph's rulings in the Gay case, which was capped in April by the judge's removal of a gag order after the settlement. That led to a torrent of news reports on the church's admission it knew Paquette had molested boys in two states when it assigned him to parishes in Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.

The diocese, facing 15 more lawsuits against Paquette, questions how it will find an impartial jury to hear future cases.

But lawyer Jerome O'Neill, representing the accusers, says the diocese's recusal request is not only groundless, but also part of a "campaign of intimidation" aimed "to interfere with judicial independence." He says the diocese's request is nothing short of "judge shopping."

"No court should permit this blatant attempt by the diocese to find a judge more to its liking, or, perhaps more realistically, one it can intimidate by spurious motions into ruling favorably for it," O'Neill has written in court papers.

The diocese gave Gay, a 38-year-old South Burlington man, the promise of a $965,000 settlement just hours before a jury was to hear opening arguments in his case the week after Easter. Gay said Paquette "sexually abused and sexually exploited" him from ages 10 to 12 at Burlington's Christ the King Catholic Church.

The diocese faces 15 more lawsuits against Paquette and one lawsuit each involving former Vermont priests James Dunn; James McShane, the subject of a $120,000 settlement in 2004; George Paulin, the subject of a $20,000 settlement in 2003; and two cases against Alfred Willis, the subject of a $150,000 settlement in 2004. O'Neill also has filed a lawsuit against a deceased Burlington priest yet to be named publicly.

The recusal request is just one way the church is trying to defend itself. The diocese also is suing the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. in U.S. District Court in Burlington, saying the church held a comprehensive liability insurance policy in the 1970s and wants the company to pay for claims on sexual abuse that occurred then.

Contact Kevin O'Connor at


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