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Vt. Catholics Still Await Answers

May 10, 2003 | Barre Montpelier Times Argus

Michael Bernier remembers the day he picked up the phone and ended three decades of silence by charging that a priest sexually abused him as a child.

Church and state leaders said they’d look into it.

A year later, he’s still on hold.

Bernier is just one person awaiting answers a year after Vermont’s Catholic diocese gave the state attorney general files on alleged sexual misconduct by at least 20 priests past and present.

Vermont Catholic Bishop Kenneth Angell called for action in a letter to the state’s 148,000 Catholics last Mother’s Day.

“The heart of the matter is that our people must be given the fullest possible assurance that abuse of minors by church personnel must never, never happen again,” Angell said at the time.

But as of today, neither church nor state leaders have fully explained what happened before.

‘Concerns about fitness’

The Vermont attorney general’s office has been investigating charges against eight recently practicing priests and 30 former colleagues. But neither church nor state leaders have named any of the accused, and only one priest placed on leave during the review the Rev. John Milanese of Randolph is known to have returned to work.

“We’re hopeful we will complete our work by the end of May or early June on the priests who were active in ministry,” state Attorney General William Sorrell said last week. “As far as the remainder, some of those allegations go back 40 years. I’m not saying we won’t do anything with them, but it won’t be anywhere near as active an investigation.”

Sorrell has given the diocese his office’s findings about all but two of the recently active priests and “we’re all but ready to do the same with the remaining.”

The attorney general doesn’t anticipate charging anyone criminally, but only because the claims found credible are too old to prosecute under the state’s various statutes of limitations.

“That doesn’t mean someone was cleared of the underlying allegations,” Sorrell said. “In certain cases we have communicated concerns to the diocese about the fitness of priests to be in active ministry.”

‘The challenges ahead’

Sorrell made his last public statement about the investigation in September, when he gave findings about two unnamed priests to the diocese.

“Pursuant to directives under the Essential Norms of the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the information furnished by the Attorney General will now be shared with the Diocesan Misconduct Review Board,” the diocese responded in a press release. “We will update the public and the press as events warrant.”

The diocese hasn’t said anything since. But the Rev. Wendell Searles, the bishop’s top assistant, says the church is working on the issue.

Angell, for example, addressed the crisis with half of the state’s almost 100 current priests in a private meeting Friday in Rutland and will gather the rest Monday in Montpelier.

“The bishop called this clergy conference specifically to deal with this what has been accomplished and what are the challenges ahead,” Searles said.

The diocese has set up a Misconduct Review Board of four lay people and two priests, adopted a code of conduct and begun background checks. It now is preparing for what will be an annual compliance audit by an outside organization hired by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“One of the big challenges now is how to reach out to victims,” Searles said. “The very nature of that isn’t public, but we’re trying to help wherever it’s appropriate.”

Court cases pending

Churches in Bellows Falls, Ludlow, Rutland and Vergennes saw their pastors depart with little or no explanation a year ago, the same day the bishop called for leaves for clergy under investigation. All four parishes now have new leaders, while their former priests face different fates.

The Rev. Donal Ward, most recently of Vergennes, resigned last September after admitting a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male above the age of consent and therefore not prosecutable.

The Rev. Brian Mead, most recently of Bellows Falls, is said only to be on medical leave after resigning as pastor.

The Rev. James McShane, most recently of Rutland, and the Rev. George Paulin, most recently of Ludlow, have resigned as pastors in the wake of lawsuits against them in Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington.

In the first case, Bernier, a 45-year-old California investment firm vice president, says he was an altar boy when McShane sexually abused him repeatedly in St. Albans.

In the second, Paul Babeu, a 33-year-old former Massachusetts county commissioner, says he was 15 when Paulin abused him on an overnight visit to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

Both men are suing not only the priests, but also the state diocese for unspecified financial damages. Their court cases have progressed as slowly as the state’s investigation.

‘Don’t have everything’

Bernier filed his lawsuit last July 2, but saw it sit until October as defense lawyers sought to dismiss the case, citing everything from a lack of specific dates and places to the fact Vermont law at the time of the alleged assault referred to a rape victim as “a female person.”

“Since plaintiff is male, his alleged rape could not have violated” the law, defense lawyer Matthew Harnett of Rutland said at the time.

(The law has since been changed.)

In response, the judge not only decided to hear the case, but also told the diocese to give Bernier more than 50 years of files on all clergy misconduct.

That was in December. Church lawyers David Cleary of Rutland and William M. O’Brien of Winooski delivered the first of the files in March but have withheld psychological and psychiatric reports for at least 14 past and present clergymen, saying “although all priests sent for treatment or evaluation knew they were required to allow disclosure of evaluations, status reports, diagnostic findings, etc. to the bishop, they had every right to expect that the information they provided to health care professionals would otherwise be kept confidential.”

Bernier’s lawyer, Jerome O’Neill of Burlington, has gone back to court seeking that information.

“They have a court order telling them to be cooperative, but we still don’t have everything,” O’Neill said last week. “We don’t think there’s a legitimate basis to withhold these documents.”

In response, Cleary said he and O’Brien were still sorting through files, but “with regard to any psychological or psychiatric evaluations, without the expressed consent of the patient, we have no authority to be giving over anything.”

‘A difficult investigation’

In the second case, Babeu, now of Arizona, filed a lawsuit against Paulin last December. But five months later the paperwork sits sealed in court, prompting Babeu’s lawyer, Thomas Bixby of Brattleboro, to file a motion asking the judge to move things forward.

The two Vermont lawsuits may not be the last. Lawyers mention at least four other possible court cases against different Vermont priests. But as the attorney general can attest, taking action isn’t easy.

“This is a difficult investigation for a number of factors,” Sorrell said. “Even the most current of the allegations are 10 or more years old. It’s not like there’s a robbery and police are dealing with fresh evidence. And, of course, the nature of the allegations can be extremely embarrassing or traumatic to people. In some cases there’s a reluctance to talk about what happened, or they’ve tried to put this behind them.”

Sorrell, who held several press conferences about the church scandal in the past, hasn’t spoken publicly about it since fall.

“We didn’t expect to be communicating with the media each time we completed an investigation on someone,” he said last week. “But if we had an allegation on Father John Doe and our investigation showed people made it up, we would be pretty aggressive in communicating in our view it didn’t happen. We wouldn’t want to continue a taint on their character.”

Bernier, for his part, continues to pick up the phone, calling his lawyer and state investigators to track the progress of his charges.

“I’m not going away,” he said last week. “I will do whatever’s necessary to continue with this case.”

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