4 Dec 2008

Vt. Catholic Church asks court for mercy

Rutland Herald - Vermont
December 4, 2008

By KEVIN O’CONNOR | Herald Staff

BURLINGTON — At first glance, they’re the same child-sex claims in the same court that sparked a record $8.7 million verdict. But with a different accuser, a different judge and a different jury, Vermont’s Catholic Church is hoping for a different outcome.

The state’s largest religious denomination, socked this spring with a ruling of negligence in its 1970s hiring and supervision of a pedophile priest, pleaded for leniency Wednesday at the start of its third trial of the year involving the same retired clergyman.

“Looking back on it, we can say it was ill-advised because we have the benefit of hindsight,” church counsel Thomas McCormick said. “The present is how do we, as a judicial system, deal with an organization’s responsibility for decisions made 36 years ago?”

Twenty men have filed civil lawsuits in Burlington’s Chittenden Superior Court alleging the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese was reckless for not telling their childhood parishes about past sexual abuse of boys by former priest Edward Paquette, who served in Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.

In the first trial in May, a jury rejected the diocese’s defense that it wasn’t liable for the priest’s misconduct and awarded plaintiff Perry Babel, a 40-year-old Burlington native, $950,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $7,750,000 in punitive damages.

But in a similar trial in August, the diocese altered its defense in a case brought by 41-year-old Burlington native Thomas Murray and expressed remorse for priest misconduct it said it tried to curb. A jury went on to deliberate for three days before announcing it couldn’t agree on a verdict, prompting the judge to declare a mistrial.

The diocese now is expressing regret in the case of David Navari, a 43-year-old Burlington native and information-technology specialist in Takoma Park, Md. In a trial that began Wednesday, Navari’s lawyer, Jerome O’Neill, said his client was an 11-year-old altar boy at Burlington’s Christ the King Church when Paquette groped the fifth-grader’s genitals on two occasions in 1977.

“We’re talking about a little boy,” O’Neill said as he displayed a childhood photo of his client.

Navari had stood still and silent as the priest unbuckled the boy’s belt.

“He thinks, ‘Is this something a priest is supposed to do to help me get ready for Mass?’” O’Neill said. As for the child telling an adult: “Who would believe him?”

Navari went on to grow angry, anxious and afraid, lose interest in religion and pick fights to prop up his masculinity, his lawyer said. In later years, he binge-drank and suffered from insomnia and clinical depression.

“The diocese must be held accountable,” O’Neill said. “The diocese had a pattern and practice of aiding and abetting its priests in molesting children. It covered it up for years.”

The lawyer said his client was seeking compensatory and punitive damages but limited his specific request to the words “serious money.”

In response, McCormick expressed the church’s regrets.

“Father Paquette should not have fondled David Navari — not once, not twice, not at all,” the diocesan attorney said before repeating his opening words from the last trial: “It’s illegal now, it was illegal then. It’s immoral now, it was immoral then. It’s wrong now, it was wrong then.”

That said, McCormick contended that Navari’s lawsuit was filed after the state’s time limit for submission. He also questioned how a jury could assess the diocese’s actions of the 1970s when its leader at the time, Vermont Catholic Bishop John Marshall, died in 1994.

“Why did he make the decisions that he did? He’s not here to say.”

The lawyer added that past church leaders had followed since-debunked advice of psychiatrists who at one point hoped Paquette could be cured through 11 sessions of electric shock therapy.

“Looking back, you would think, ‘Who in their right mind would think electroshock would treat pedophilia?’” McCormick said. “Times were different in the ’70s than they are today. At that time, pedophilia was thought to be a mental condition associated with depression.

“Yes, Bishop Marshall knew there had been abuse, but he was turning to the medical profession for an assessment about whether Father Paquette could be given another chance. The advice he was given was wrong and the decision he made was mistaken, but it was not a corrupt culture.”

Navari’s claims are similar to those made by the winner of the $8.7 million verdict.

But Chittenden Superior Court has a new judge, Dennis Pearson, who is presiding over a new jury made up of five men and seven women.

The priest misconduct scandal has sparked more than 30 Vermont lawsuits in the past six years. The statewide diocese has spent at least $2 million to resolve nine of the cases. It’s appealing the record $8.7 million verdict to the state Supreme Court, and it’s awaiting a retrial in the case that ended in August with a hung jury.

In addition, the church faces 21 more filings in Chittenden Superior Court, all which claim that religious leaders were negligent in their hiring and supervision of at least 11 retired or recently deceased pedophile priests.

Sixteen of the pending cases involve Paquette, who church records show molested boys in Massachusetts and Indiana before the diocese assigned him without public warning to Rutland’s Christ the King Church in 1972, Montpelier’s St. Augustine’s Church in 1974 and Burlington’s Christ the King Church in 1976.

The Vermont diocese doesn’t have insurance for priest misconduct, but says it held a comprehensive liability policy with the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. from 1972 to 1978. The church can’t find its copy of the policy, however, so it has taken the insurer to U.S. District Court in Burlington in hopes the company will unearth the paperwork and pay for the costs associated with the lawsuits.

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