Diocese Attempt to Get Judge Removed from Abuse Cases Rejected
By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press [Vermont]
July 26, 2006
An administrative judge ruled Tuesday that Judge Ben Joseph has not shown bias against the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese and can continue to preside over 22 priest abuse cases pending in Chittenden County Superior Court.
The diocese, after settling a sex-abuse claim brought by a South Burlington man for $965,000 in April, had sought Joseph's removal as the presiding judge, claiming his pre-trial decisions in the case were unfair to the church. The removal request was the subject of a July 5 hearing before Judge Amy Davenport.
"If anything, Judge Joseph bent over backward to provide both parties with a fair opportunity to be heard and exhibited remarkable patience in dealing with the myriad issues raised by this case," Davenport wrote in her 10-page decision.
Davenport also said that the diocese's claims that Joseph spoke in a threatening manner toward church lawyers during one pre-trial hearing was "wholly without merit." She also disputed the diocese's claim that Joseph's actions forced it to settle the sex abuse case.
"It was the diocese's decision to settle rather than go forward with the trial or take an interlocutory appeal," Davenport wrote. "To attempt to blame that decision on Judge Joseph after the fact is without merit."
Attorney Jerome O'Neill, the lawyer representing the alleged victims of priest sexual abuse who have cases before Joseph, praised Davenport's decision but said the diocese's attempt to get Joseph removed from the cases was ominous.
"It is part of a larger strategy to try to intimidate judges to make decisions more favorable to the church and convince potential jurors that the church has been treated unfairly and doesn't have the assets to pay large awards," O'Neill said.
O'Neill said the church's request to have Joseph replaced had resulted in a three-month delay in moving the rest of the cases toward a resolution. He said there have been no discussions between himself and the diocese about settling the lawsuits.
David Cleary, the lead attorney representing the diocese, said Tuesday he had not had time to read Davenport's decision thoroughly and would consult with colleagues and Bishop Salvatore Matano before deciding whether to appeal the ruling.
"I understand what the judge has ruled but that does not mean I agree with it," Cleary said. "She certainly rejected all of our arguments, however it was notable that there was not any reference to our analysis of the judge's post-trial release of previously private documents."
Cleary, as part of his request to have Joseph replaced, had alleged Joseph's decision to lift a gag order and make public internal church documents associated with the settled case had harmed the chances for drawing impartial juries for the rest of the priest abuse cases.
The next priest abuse allegation lawsuit is expected to go to trial later this year. Judges receive new court assignments in September. O'Neill said he understood that no decision has been made on whether Joseph will preside over the upcoming case, or others beyond that.
Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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