Diocese Recusal Request Headed to Court

By Adam Silverman
Burlington Free Press [Vermont]
July 5, 2006

Lawyers are scheduled to argue today about whether a Chittenden County judge should be removed from hearing lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington alleging sexual abuse by priests.

The diocese -- facing 21 claims filed by people who say they were victims of abuse and having settled one case for nearly $1 million -- asked in May that Superior Court Judge Ben Joseph step down from presiding over the pending cases.

Diocesan attorneys argued in court papers that Joseph has issued a spate of biased rulings against the church that necessitated the settlement and made it nearly impossible for future trials to be fair.

Plaintiffs countered that Joseph's decisions have been impartial and proper, and they accused the diocese of "judge shopping" and trying to intimidate the judiciary.

Joseph declined to recuse himself and referred the matter to Amy Davenport, the administrative judge for trial courts. At the plaintiffs' request, she scheduled a hearing -- rare for this type of judicial proceeding -- for this afternoon in Washington Superior Court in Montpelier.

Motions seeking a judge's removal from a case typically are decided on written legal arguments alone, said lawyers involved in the case.

The issue is the latest point of contention between the diocese and people who claim to have suffered because the church shuffled priests from parish to parish despite allegations they were sexually abusing altar boys.

"We didn't believe we were getting a fair shake," lead Diocesan attorney David Cleary said. "The decisions were tilted grossly in favor of the plaintiff."

Countered Jerome O'Neill, the primary attorney representing the alleged victims, "Any judge, in our view, is going to make the kind of decisions Judge Joseph has made. We view this an attempt to intimidate the judiciary. This is judge shopping."

The diocese says Joseph issued biased rulings in the first of the 21 cases, that of Michael Gay of South Burlington, who claimed that, as an altar boy in 1977 at Christ the King Church, he was molested by the Rev. Edward Paquette. Pretrial rulings "forced" the church to settle the case April 19 for $965,000, Cleary said. Joseph then lifted a gag order and made public personnel rec- ords from the diocese and other papers connected with the abuse allegations.

Cleary said today's hearing is important because it will determine whether the diocese receives "a chance to have a balanced, fair-minded judge rule on the upcoming cases." For the plaintiffs, what's at stake is a matter of swift justice: Replacing the judge now, O'Neill said, would delay the proceedings as the new jurist learns about the cases.

The lawyers did not know whether Davenport would rule today or issue a written decision later.

The next lawsuit is likely to begin in September, Cleary said, because issues about exchanging information between the sides pushed the case back from an expected July start date.

Contact Adam Silverman at 660-1854 or


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