La Iglesia catolica en Vermont tendra que pagar $2.2 millones de dolares a Michael Keppler de 44 anos quien cuando era un nino trabajo como monaguillo y fue abusado por un sacerdote catolico.
Man gets $2.2M in priest abuse suit
By Kevin O'Connor Staff Writer - Published: October 10, 2009
BURLINGTON — In another potentially bankrupting verdict against the state's largest religious denomination, a Chittenden Superior Court jury ruled Friday that Vermont's Catholic Church should pay $2.2 million for negligence in hiring and supervising a pedophile priest.
A panel of five men and seven women deliberated for 15 hours over three days before finding the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese liable in a lawsuit regarding the former Rev. Edward Paquette, who worked in Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.
The jury awarded Michael Keppler, a 44-year-old Burlington painting contractor and divorced father of three, $2.2 million in compensatory damages but no punitive damages for civil claims that the diocese failed to protect him from Paquette. In his lawsuit, Keppler said the priest fondled him about two dozen times when he was a preteen altar boy at his hometown Christ the King Church in the late 1970s.
The verdict capped the fourth trial involving the same retired clergyman and raised the amount of court fines the diocese owes to nearly $15 million.
As the jury decided the latest of nearly 40 priest misconduct lawsuits against the church, the Vermont Supreme Court surprised everyone by calling for a retrial of the first.
In an unexpected ruling Friday, the state's highest court overturned a 2007 Chittenden Superior Court verdict that ordered the diocese to pay $15,000 to Northeast Kingdom native James Turner, who claimed the church failed to protect him from child sexual abuse by the former Rev. Alfred Willis, a priest in Burlington, Montpelier and Milton before being defrocked in 1985.
Lawyers for both the diocese, upset with a ruling of negligence, and the plaintiff, unhappy with the small award, had appealed the decision. In a 30-page ruling, the state's highest court agreed with the diocese that the 2007 judge should have let the jury decide whether the case was too old to prosecute under Vermont's statutes of limitations. It also agreed with the plaintiff that one juror with strong diocesan ties shouldn't have been seated.
"The only available remedy," it concluded, "is … a new trial."
Lawyers on all sides weren't sure how the Supreme Court decision would affect two other lower court verdicts now on appeal. In May 2008, a jury awarded Burlington native Perry Babel a record $8.7 million for claims that Paquette fondled him 40 to 100 times three decades ago. Then in December, another jury awarded Burlington native David Navari nearly $3.6 million for claims that Paquette fondled him on two occasions in 1977.
"The decision is long and complex," church counsel Thomas McCormick said. "We're still assessing how to proceed."
What was clear: The 118,000-member statewide diocese faces a growing financial challenge. The church says it doesn't have cash on hand to pay for costly verdicts and is suing its former insurer for support. In the meantime, the court has placed liens on an increasing number of Catholic properties, including the diocese's Burlington headquarters, to assure any and all judgments are paid.
The diocese has spent at least $2 million more to resolve nine other negligence lawsuits, yet still faces 25 more cases involving seven retired or recently deceased priests. Twenty of those are tied to Paquette, now an 80-year-old Massachusetts retiree who was suspended from the priesthood in 1978 and defrocked by the Vatican last spring.
Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano, who attended most of the latest trial, expressed "deep regret and apology" for the past abuse.
"It is my hope that we can resolve these cases in a very charitable and equitable manner," the bishop said.
But lawyers for both sides weren't talking about resolution, but instead about appealing the latest verdict to the Supreme Court. The diocese wants the entire decision overturned, while the plaintiff's attorneys may challenge Judge Helen Toor's limits on testimony they believe stopped them from receiving punitive damages.
Before the start of jury deliberations, Keppler's lawyers used their closing statement to review church records that showed the diocese transferred Paquette to the plaintiff's Burlington parish without telling anyone it knew the priest had molested boys in Massachusetts, Indiana, Rutland and Montpelier.
Lawyer John Evers said Keppler had numbed his resulting shame, anxiety and depression with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.
"Every day he fights to stay sober," Evers said of his client. "We're really here because the diocese says 'We're not responsible.' Only you can hold them responsible."
In response, church counsel Kaveh Shahi didn't dispute the abuse allegations but questioned how a jury could assess the diocese's liability when its bishop at the time, John Marshall, died in 1994 and his surviving colleagues retired long ago.
"These witnesses were elderly, they had difficulty recalling. These are not folks who are out there on Wall Street chasing the mighty dollar."
Shahi, in turn, questioned the plaintiff's memory.
"Did it really happen that way? The harm here is what they're claiming. Did he start drinking because of the abuse or was it part of his life they're just trying to fit into this?"
Shahi said the plaintiff should have filed his lawsuit as a young adult ("he could have gone and talked to Father Paquette or other altar boys") rather than waiting until learning about other court cases earlier this decade.
"A reasonable person in his position should have known that when something happens in a work setting, there could be responsibility that's pointed toward the employer. You can't sit on your rights forever and forever and then bring a lawsuit because somebody else did."
But Shahi said the diocese shouldn't be liable because 1970s society didn't fully understand pedophilia.
"We say that Bishop Marshall made the wrong decision back then, but he was relying on the professional advice that was given. When we think back, the reality of it is this was not viewed as a crime that had people calling the police. People simply didn't understand the potential psychological harm to children."
"There's no need to punish this diocese in 2009 for what happened 37 years ago," Shahi concluded. "Even though this is something that was wrong, we have the responsibility to defend ourselves. Writing a blank check and accepting moral responsibility are two different things."
In response, Jerome O'Neill, the plaintiff's other lawyer, likened the diocese to a squid that spews all over everything to defend itself.
"Bishop Matano says, 'We're responsible,' yet you just heard, 'We're not responsible.'"