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Lawsuit Claims Abuse By Vermont Priest

Oct 1, 2002 | The Rutland Herald A California man is suing a Rutland priest and Vermont’s Catholic diocese, charging he was sexually abused as an altar boy.

Michael J. Bernier, 45, alleges he was an elementary pupil at St. Mary’s Church and School in St. Albans when the Rev. James J. McShane, then serving there, repeatedly “sexually abused, sexually exploited and sexually assaulted” him.

Bernier, now a vice president for a San Jose investment company, wants a jury to calculate financial damages as part of a civil lawsuit filed in Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington.

He is suing not only McShane but also the state’s Catholic diocese, saying it’s liable because it ordained and supervised the longtime priest.

Bernier’s case is the first to be publicized since state Attorney General William Sorrell began an investigation against 10 current and 30 former Vermont priests charged with sexual misconduct. The investigation is not yet completed.

McShane is on a leave of absence as pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Rutland. His lawyer, Matthew Harnett of Rutland, reserved comment Monday.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate for either one of us to comment on an unresolved legal matter,” Harnett said.

The diocese, for its part, is represented by lawyers William M. O’Brien of Winooski and David L. Cleary of Rutland.

“We have limited information because the complaint does not allege any dates or times or places,” O’Brien said Monday. “We’re going to have to let the discovery process take its course to find out what we’re dealing with.”

In his lawsuit, Bernier says he was a member of St. Mary’s Church and School in St. Albans from birth through sixth grade, during which time he “came to know, trust, admire, respect and revere” McShane.

The priest, in turn, reportedly took Bernier on parish-sponsored hiking, swimming and overnight camping trips, as well as to saunas.

“While plaintiff was a child, defendant McShane repeatedly committed unpermitted, harmful and offensive sexual contact,” the lawsuit says.

The court complaint offers few specifics other than to say “this conduct violated Vermont statutes which prohibited lewd or lascivious conduct with a child and sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault rape.”

The lawsuit says the diocese is liable because it not only ordained McShane, but also placed him “in a situation where he had the opportunity to and did molest and otherwise sexually abuse a number of pre-teen and teenage boys.”

The lawsuit continues that the diocese had “actual knowledge” of some of McShane’s alleged misconduct “but took no action to remove him from the priesthood or to investigate his well-known proclivities.”

Bernier, because of the alleged abuse and inaction, “will continue to suffer severe pain, emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of self esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological injuries … and will continue to incur expenses for medical and psychological treatment, therapy and counseling,” the lawsuit concludes.

He is seeking financial damages “in an amount deemed appropriate by the jury.”

Bernier’s lawsuit is dated July 2, and McShane signed a summons saying he received it July 12. But the priest and the diocese then filed a motion to dismiss the case, blocking publication until Judge Matthew I. Katz recently denied the request and released the paperwork.

McShane’s motion to dismiss noted everything from the lawsuit’s lack of specific dates and places to the fact Vermont law at the time of the assault referred to a rape victim as “a female person.”

“Since plaintiff is male, his alleged rape could not have violated” the law, Harnett wrote in the motion. (The law has since been changed.)

Bernier’s lawyer, Jerome O’Neill, is a former federal prosecutor and current chairman of the Burlington Police Commission. He has successfully argued other sexual misconduct cases against clergy and physical and mental health professionals.

O’Neill on Monday asked why the diocese, while saying it wants to be forthcoming with prosecutors and the public, pushed for almost three months to throw out the case.

“We hear the stuff about new attitudes, but this is seal it, hide it, cover this thing up,” he said.

O’Neill added that the diocese’s motion to dismiss came at the same time it was seeking $2.3 million for its annual summer Bishop’s Fund drive. But church counsel said any attempts to shelve the lawsuit came out of concern about its so-far lack of specifics.

“It’s important for a defendant to know exactly what he’s being charged with,” O’Brien said for the diocese. “By statute, this type of complaint is under seal to allow defendants the opportunity to file motions, and that’s precisely what happened here. These men have rights. These men are appropriately exercising their rights. But while simultaneously filing motions to dismiss, we have forwarded what information we have to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation.”

Parishioners at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church voiced surprise at the lawsuit.

“It’s the first I’ve heard about it,” said the Rev. Benedict Kiely, temporary administrator. “As far as we know, Father McShane is still on administrative leave and we have no more information. We’re relying entirely on the attorney general and he hasn’t released anything about Father McShane. We’re just waiting, as are most people.”

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