Diocese to appeal $8.7 million clergy abuse verdict

The Burlington Free Press/May 15, 2008

The state's Roman Catholic diocese will mount a two-pronged appeal of the $8.7 million damage award issued this week in a clergy sex abuse case, an attorney for the diocese said Wednesday.

Kaveh Shahi said the diocese's appeal would seek to overturn two rulings by Judge Matthew Katz -- one that allowed the jury in the case to award punitive damages and another that told the jury not to consider whether the plaintiff waited too long to file his lawsuit.

Punitive damages are awarded to punish a guilty party for its bad conduct. Of the $8.7 million awarded to the plaintiff in the case, $7.75 million was in punitive damages.

"Everybody knows this is a very different diocese now than it was then," Shahi said. "This stuff isn't happening any more. It's two bishops and 30 years later."

The case decided Tuesday involved claims by a former altar boy that he was fondled from 40 to 100 times at a Burlington church by the Rev. Edward Paquette between 1976 and 1978. The man, now 40, sued the diocese in 2005 after learning it knew Paquette was a child molester when it hired him.

Shahi said it was unfair that the jury could not weigh in the fact that the former altar boy was able to have his case heard 30 years after the alleged incidents occurred. The judge ruled the statute of limitations rule was moot because the plaintiff could not have known key facts about the diocese's decision to hire Paquette until recently.

The jury's decision Tuesday appeared to stun the diocese's leader, Bishop Salvatore Matano, and the church's legal team. Matano said moments after the verdict was announced that the size of the damage award will pose grave problems for the diocese.

"I have to be very conscious that the verdict as it stands will have a very serious impact on a rural diocese, a small rural diocese," Matano said.

Matano was unavailable for comment Wednesday on how the diocese plans to pay the $8.7 million award if it survives the appeal. Shahi said that, until now, the diocese has been able to come up with the money for settlements and legal fees in its clergy abuse cases with its own funds.

Whether the diocese will have insurance coverage to help pay Tuesday's damage award is unclear.

The church has been unable to locate a copy of the insurance policy it had during the time in the 1970s when Paquette was working for the diocese. The insurer, United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co., concedes it provided coverage to the diocese during the period, but can't find the policy, either.

In 2006, the diocese sued the insurer in federal court after the insurer balked at helping to pay a $965,000 settlement the diocese had reached with another Paquette victim, Michael Gay of South Burlington.

The two sides have squabbled over the exchange of church documents in the pretrial stage of the federal case, as well as on the terms that were likely contained in the missing policy. The policy is believed to have had a $300,000 coverage limit, Shahi said.

United States Fidelity and Guaranty's own investigation into the diocese's decision to hire Paquette despite his background turned up new documents recently that ended up being used to bolster the former altar boy's case before the jury last week.

Shahi said the diocese will press the federal court for a ruling that requires the insurer to apply the $300,000 coverage limit as liberally as possible.

"We don't know if the figure is per year, per lawsuit or per incident," Shahi said. "It will be up to the federal judge to decide that."

Mark Errico, a New Jersey attorney representing United States Fidelity and Guaranty, declined comment on the federal case and impact of Tuesday's $8.7 million verdict on his client's negotiations with the Vermont diocese.

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