Vt. Roman Catholic diocese to sell headquarters, kids' camp to pay priest sex abuse judgments

Associated Press/February 3, 2010

Montpellier, Vermont - Buffeted by priest sex abuse lawsuits, Vermont's Catholic church says it will sell its headquarters building and a children's camp to raise money for settlements to alleged abuse victims.

If it does, the 118,000-member Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington would become the latest U.S. diocese to resort to selling off assets to satisfy claims stemming from sexual abuse by priests.

"It sends a real signal to the parishioners (of) how serious they're taking this," said Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University. "It's serious financially, but they're also showing they're serious about working it out."

Such moves have become increasingly common in the wake of the clergy sex scandal:

-In 2008, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles sold its headquarters building to help pay a $660 million settlement with people alleging sex abuse by clergy. The building sold for $31 million.

-In 2007, the Boston Archdiocese sold its administrative headquarters to neighboring Boston College for $65 million to cover costs related to its clergy sex abuse scandal.

The Vermont church, which has been hit with several big-money verdicts, now has 25 sex abuse lawsuits pending that accuse it of negligent hiring and supervision of priests. Eighteen involve the Rev. Edward Paquette, who worked in parishes in Rutland, Montpelier and Burlington in the 1970s and allegedly molested dozens of altar boys.

In a 2008 case, a Colorado man was awarded $8.7 million in damages by a jury that found the church hired Paquette despite warnings that he had molested boys in previous assignments. The AP does not publish the names of sexual assault victims without their consent.

As a result of that verdict and another case, liens were placed on the church's Burlington headquarters, a five-story brick office building on 32 acres overlooking Lake Champlain, and several church-owned nursing homes.

On Jan. 21, as the diocese's appeal was pending in the Vermont Supreme Court, the church and plaintiff's lawyer Jerome F. O'Neill settled the case, though neither side will say for how much.

The church's lead lawyer, Thomas McCormick, said the settlement frees the statewide diocese to sell the headquarters building and Camp Holy Cross, a 26-acre children's camp with 1,000 feet of Lake Champlain shoreline in Colchester.

"The litigation has gone long enough," said McCormick said Wednesday. "It's a time for healing for the victims, for their families, for the people in the pews, for the good priests who just keep serving."

O'Neill and a national support group for priest sex victims doubt the church's sincerity.

"We view this more as a public relations gambit than an actual expression of interest," O'Neill said.

He added: "From our perspective, actions speak much louder than words."

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the diocese "has long failed to honor its promises."

"This is a fairly common maneuver by church officials, as clergy sex abuse and cover-up cases near resolution, to plead poverty, hoping to win public sympathy and persuade victims to settle cheaply," Clohessy said.

McCormick said the church has had the properties appraised and is in talks with the Town of Colchester about the town buying the camp. Church officials are now looking for new office space, he said.

He said the diocese has considered filing for bankruptcy but resisted it because the priest sex cases would still have to be dealt with. It remains an option, he said.

"If we can't settle the cases and we keep getting hit, that would seem to be inevitable," he said.

If the cases aren't settled, they'll go to trial jointly, under an order issued Friday by Chittenden County Superior Court Judge Helen Toor. Citing the similarity of the claims against the diocese in the Paquette cases, she said they could be tried as one, with a second proceeding for three suits over alleged molestations by defrocked Rev. Alfred Willis.

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