Vermont's Catholic church settles 26 priest sex abuse cases with nearly $18 million payment

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Dozens of former altar boys who sued Vermont's Catholic church over allegations of sexual abuse by priests 30 years ago will share in a nearly $18 million settlement of their cases.

The attorney for the 26 plaintiffs and the bishop of the statewide Diocese of Burlington said Thursday they were pleased by the settlement, but both acknowledged that the cases had been difficult for the victims.

"Our clients are very happy to have the opportunity to close this chapter in their lives," said plaintiff attorney Jerome O'Neill. "All of them know that nothing goes away, nothing changes the pain. They will live with this the rest of their lives, but at least now they can put this piece behind them and move forward."

An arbitrator will divide the settlement among the plaintiffs, depending on the nature of their injuries, their recoveries and other factors, O'Neill said. Payments are expected by the end of June, he said.

Bishop Salvatore Matano asked for prayers to help the victims heal from the abuse.

"This has been a very painful process for the victims and for all the members of our diocesan family," Matano said. "I once again apologize most sincerely for the pain the victims have suffered. I ask that you join me in praying always for these wounded and hurt brothers and sisters."

The lawsuits accused the diocese of negligent hiring, and many of the cases centered on the defrocked Rev. Edward Paquette, who was the target of allegations before he transferred to Vermont in the mid-1970s. Paquette had worked in parishes in Rutland and Montpelier and in Christ the King Church in Burlington, and he was accused of molesting dozens of altar boys.

The diocese didn't dispute that the molestations occurred. The 80-year-old priest recently told the Burlington Free Press newspaper he was sorry for his actions and prays daily for the families of the people he harmed.

The head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, called the settlement purely a business deal by the diocese.

"Anyone who assumes this somehow suggests reform in the diocese is naive," David Clohessy said. "The credit for this settlement lies squarely with the brave victims who had the strength to come forward, the wisdom to seek justice in the courts and determination to persist despite years of expensive, futile and self-serving legal maneuvers by Vermont's bishop."

Last month, a judge set a Sept. 20 trial date for the cases unless they could be settled out of court.

Besides the 26 pending cases that were settled for $17.65 million, the two sides agreed to settle three cases that had already been decided in court with multimillion-dollar awards and were on appeal, bringing the total the diocese has paid to more than $20 million, O'Neill said. The diocese said the settlements were much more modest than the jury awards but would remain confidential.

O'Neill said he would have preferred to have gone to trial but did what is best for his clients. He surmised the diocese decided to settle following three multimillion-dollar verdicts.

"Three multimillion-dollar verdicts later they finally realized they were not going to get Vermont juries to just dismiss these people with small amounts of money or find for the diocese," O'Neill said.

In a statement posted on the website of the 118,000-member diocese, Matano said that to make the payment the church would sell its Burlington headquarters, which includes prime, undeveloped Lake Champlain waterfront property, and a lakeside summer camp on Malletts Bay in Colchester.


Associated Press writers Wilson Ring in Montpelier and John Curran in New Orleans contributed to this report.