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Vt. jury, high court side with plaintiffs in priest sex-abuse cases

By The Associated Press
10.13.09

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A Vermont jury awarded a former altar boy a record $2.2 million in compensatory damages on Oct. 9 in a priest sex-abuse case against the state's Catholic diocese.

On the same day, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed an earlier, $15,000 verdict against the church, opening the possibility of a larger award in a new trial.

The $2.2 million verdict for the unnamed plaintiff in Chittenden Superior Court came just hours after the state Supreme Court issued a complex ruling in Turner v. Roman Catholic Diocese, another case involving sexual abuse by a priest. The Associated Press doesn't identify victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

The jury verdict on Oct. 9 involved allegations by a former altar boy who said the diocese failed to protect him from Rev. Edward Paquette, who allegedly fondled him 20 to 25 times at Christ the King Church in Burlington from 1976 to 1978.

Jerome O'Neill, a lawyer representing more than two dozen people suing the diocese, said $2.2 million was the largest compensatory-damage award yet issued against Vermont's largest religious denomination.

The largest verdict against the diocese in Vermont, which is now on appeal, was $8.7 million, but the bulk of that verdict was in punitive damages.

In the jury-verdict case, O’Neill said Judge Helen Toor barred him from introducing allegations of misconduct by the diocese that might have resulted in a punitive damage award in this case as well.

Messages left for the diocese’s lawyer, Daniel Burchard, were not returned in time for this story.

The state Supreme Court decision dealt with the case of James Turner of Virginia Beach, Va., and formerly of Derby. Turner agreed while his case was pending to have his name revealed publicly.

Turner charged that when he was 16, the Rev. Alfred Willis sexually abused him in a motel room in Albany, N.Y., after a ceremony in which Turner's brother was ordained as a priest.

Turner also alleged that Willis, a priest in Vermont at the time, later tried to molest him again at his family's home in Derby.

The high court's lengthy and complex ruling delved heavily into issues along the front line between church and state. It largely rejected the church's arguments that courts should have little to say about issues like whom it hires as priests.

The church had argued that the claim it negligently hired Willis wasn't a proper one for the court to consider. For that to happen would amount to excessive entanglement by government in a church's internal affairs, violating the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion, the church's lawyers argued.

The high court decision, written by Associate Justice John Dooley III, rejected this argument.

"The duty owed by defendant to protect minors from sexual abuse is not different from the duty owed by other institutions to which the common law applies," Dooley wrote. "We find that there was no excessive entanglement, and thus, no violation of the Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment.

The church has raised similar First Amendment arguments in many other sex-abuse cases filed against it in recent years. The state high court's ruling "knocks flat all their First Amendment issues," O'Neill said. "We are thrilled."

The issue on which the case appeared to turn, though, was the Supreme Court's finding that the trial court had erred when it permitted a woman with too-close ties to the diocese to sit on the jury.

During jury selection, the woman answered a questionnaire given to prospective jurors saying she was a member of the diocese; a regular reader of the Vermont Catholic Tribune, the diocesan newspaper; regularly attended Mass, was "very familiar" with news-media coverage of the cases against the diocese; was familiar with some of the witnesses in the case; and had "some opinion" on "whether the diocese is at fault for what may have happened."

The church argued that to bar the woman from the jury would be an unconstitutional exclusion based on religious belief. The high court disagreed.

The diocese, "even though it is a religious organization, has no constitutionally protected right to have its own parishioners sit on its jury," the court said. "Plaintiff is not asking for the systematic exclusion of all Catholics, but rather that persons with a relationship with this particular defendant be excluded from the jury."


Related

Maine high court: Man may sue diocese over alleged abuse

Ruling finds supervisory relationship between bishops, priests isn't protected from legal scrutiny under the First Amendment when priests are known to be abusive. 05.04.05

Federal judge orders release of Ore. clergy abuse records

After 2007 legal settlement, victim advocates and church officials disagreed over how many documents to make public. 12.03.08

High court won't block release of Conn. priest-abuse records
Justices also turn away appeals in several other First Amendment-related cases. 10.05.09

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