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Spotlight Report

Vt. diocese called slow to respond to abuse

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff, 10/19/2003

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Despite a decision to settle the first of four lawsuits that accuse Roman Catholic priests in Vermont of child sexual abuse, the Diocese of Burlington is facing criticism that it has failed to reconcile with victims and is hindering the legal process by flouting court orders.

Church officials insist that they are responding quickly, appropriately, and sensitively to a flurry of allegations that surfaced after the clergy sexual abuse scandal rocked the Boston Archdiocese last year. However, state law enforcement authorities and victims' lawyers characterized the response by the diocese as grudging and reluctant.

"They're revictimizing these people; they're just getting jerked around," said Jerome O'Neill, the lawyer for Michael Bernier, 46, a California stockbroker who alleges in a civil lawsuit that he was sexually abused more than 30 years ago by a priest in Bernier's hometown, St. Albans.

This month, O'Neill filed a motion for sanctions in Chittenden Superior Court that accuses the Diocese of Burlington, which includes parishes throughout Vermont, of defying court orders to turn over by Aug. 11 all clergy sexual abuse and misconduct records dating to 1950, psychological records of its clergy, and all documents related to a criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office. That information had not been received by Friday, O'Neill said.

"We want to know what the diocese knew in relation to specific priests and whether they knew what the size of the problem was and what they did about it," said O'Neill, a former federal prosecutor.

A spokeswoman for the diocese referred questions about the motion to a church attorney, who could not be reached for comment.

The Rev. Wendell Searles, who as vicar general is the second-ranking official of the diocese, said the church's actions were prompt, self-initiated, and ongoing. As far back as May 2002, he said, the diocese gave the attorney general's office the files of 21 priests with possible sex-abuse problems, including six in active ministry.

When the attorney general's office announced shortly afterward that it would launch a criminal investigation, the diocese placed the six active priests on administrative leave. The remaining 15 priests are either retired or dead, Searles said.

"We know a lot more about this now than we did 10 years ago, that's for sure," he said. "It's been a very, very difficult time. All of this, obviously, is serious stuff."

In the past, some priests were returned to active ministry after receiving professional treatment following allegations of sexual abuse of children, Searles said. "We know now that that's a mistake."

Cindy J. Maguire, chief of the attorney general's criminal division, said the church gradually became more forthcoming during the investigation. However, she said, none of the allegations of child sexual abuse, some of which dated back decades, were reported to the attorney general's office before the scandal broke in Boston. In addition, she said, none of the priests were placed on leave until Attorney General William Sorrell announced that his office would begin a criminal investigation.

No criminal charges will be filed against the six formerly active priests, and the investigation of the others continues, Maguire said. The 20-year statute of limitations and a lack of corroborating witnesses have been formidable obstacles, she said.

One of the six priests has been returned to active ministry, Searles said. The five others, one of whom has died, were ordered by the church to cease public duties. "The [state] investigation showed problems" with them, he said.

In addition to the 21 files received from the diocese, Maguire said, the attorney general's office has received allegations from public and nonchurch sources in more than a dozen other cases. Investigators are poring over these accusations, she said, primarily to ensure that no alleged perpetrator continues to work with children.

Searles said the sex-abuse controversy has deeply scarred the Vermont diocese, which is the largest religious denomination in the state, with 125,000 members. The current leader of the diocese is Bishop Kenneth Angell.

After months of legal wrangling, the diocese reached its first settlement last week with Paul Babeu, 34, a former county commissioner from North Adams, Mass. Babeu, now a police officer in Arizona, received a settlement in the low five figures, according to his lawyer, Thomas Bixby of Brattleboro, Vt.

Babeu alleged that a priest molested him at his North Troy, Vt., rectory during a school vacation between December 1984 and January 1985. Babeu had been driven to Vermont by the Rev. Richard Lavigne, a priest in the Springfield, Mass., diocese who had previously assaulted the boy, Bixby said.

Two years later, Babeu confided in an older brother, who alerted a North Adams parish priest. The report was relayed to Bishop John Marshall, then the leader of the Burlington Diocese. Marshall wrote to the Babeu family in 1987 to acknowledge the allegation, but said the priest had denied the accusation.

Bixby pointed out that the diocese did not act against the priest in a sexual abuse case until this year. "We do believe that 16 years is dereliction of duty," Bixby said. "Any time there's an allegation of child sexual abuse, it's incumbent on the diocese to conduct an investigation and take the priest out of the duties that would involve them with children."

Although a settlement has been reached with the Burlington Diocese, Babeu has pending civil claims against Lavigne, who has been convicted in Massachusetts on child molestation charges; the Vermont priest; and the Springfield Diocese.

Searles said the Burlington Diocese, which expects more civil suits to be filed, has offered nonbinding mediation in an effort to settle the three pending claims. Bernier, the alleged victim from St. Albans, called the offer an insult.

"They have not offered me a helping hand," said Bernier, a former altar boy who alleges he was assaulted by a priest. "I want them to comply with the court orders. I want them to go through and clean house."

Bernier said he became re acquainted with the assault, which he would not describe, through "recovered memory" triggered by news of the Boston church scandal. The alleged attacks, he said, transformed his adolescent and adult life.

"It took away my childhood," Bernier said. "They might as well have taken a knife to my heart."

Searles said the church is eager to settle. "We have tried to get word to the opposing attorneys that we want to settle to the degree we can and reach out to help anyone who has been victimized," he said.

After the allegations surfaced last year, clergy in Vermont were required to report suspicions of child sexual abuse to civil authorities. In addition, Searles said, the diocese revised its code of conduct for employees and volunteers who work with youths, instituted background checks for those staff members, and formed a victims' assistance committee.

"There's been a betrayal of trust," Searles said. "I think we'll be dealing with the fallout of this for a long, long time."


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