Burlington Diocese faces three new lawsuits over past sexual abuse

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(Host) The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington is facing at least three more lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by Vermont priests. But the diocese has indicated it will take a more aggressive position in fighting the news cases.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) The allegations in two of the new lawsuits date back to the 1970s. In one, 45-year old Neil Morrissette of Newport says he was sexually abused in 1971 by the Reverend George Paulin when Paulin served as a priest in the Northeast Kingdom. Morrissette was 13 at the time.

Last year, the church paid an undisclosed sum to another plaintiff who had accused Paulin of abusing him in the 1980s. Most recently Paulin served as a pastor in Ludlow. He resigned from the ministry last year.

In another suit, 36-year old Michael Gay of South Burlington alleges he was abused by the Reverend Edward Paquette in the late 1970s when Paquette was a priest at Christ the King Parish in Burlington. The suit alleges the abuse occurred over a period of several years when Gay was an altar boy at the church.

Burlington Attorney Jerome O’Neill is the lawyer for both Morrissette and Gay. O’Neill says the Reverend Paquette has also been the subject of abuse allegations stemming from his time as a priest in Massachussetts. And O’Neill says there will be other cases filed against the Burlington Diocese.

(O’Neill) “We have filed another case that I don’t feel I can identify at the moment because the time period to file a motion to dismiss has not yet expired. There are other cases that we are investigating and expect to file.”

(Zind) In the past year the diocese has paid to settle several lawsuits filed against Vermont priests, including one settlement reached earlier this year in which a client of O’Neill’s was paid $150,000. As one of the terms of the settlement, the church acknowledged it had knowingly transferred the priest accused of child sexual abuse. O’Neill says the church has changed its approach to abuse lawsuits.

(O’Neill) “I think the diocese has certainly become much more cooperative in these cases then they were ten years ago or even two years ago. They treat the claimants much more gently than they have in the past and they’re much more interested in having discussions to see if they can resolve the cases.”

(Zind) But the diocese may take a different approach to these new lawsuits. Diocese Lawyer William O’Brien says the church will argue that the suits have no merit because the allegations date back many years.

(O’Brien) “We are forced now – because these complaints continue to be filed – we are going to defend them in a manner that will allow us to fully explore whether or not we have a defense based on the statute of limitations.”

(Zind) O’Brien says the law requires that a lawsuit be filed within six years of the date of the alleged incidents or six years from the date that the plaintiff realizes they are suffering from the affects of the abuse.

There have been no criminal charges filed against Vermont Catholic priests. The Vermont Attorney General decided not to pursue charges, because, in many cases the statute of limitations prevented him.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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