Ex-altar boy wins $2.2M from diocese


MONTPELIER -- A Vermont jury on Friday awarded a former altar boy a record $2.2 million in compensatory damages Friday in a priest sex abuse case against the state's Catholic diocese.

Also Friday, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed an earlier, $15,000 verdict against the church, opening the possibility of a larger award in a new trial.

The $2.2 million verdict for the unnamed plaintiff in Chittenden Superior Court came just hours after the state Supreme Court issued a complex ruling in another case involving sexual abuse by a priest. The Associated Press doesn't identify victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

The jury verdict Friday involved allegations by a former altar boy who said the diocese failed to protect him from Rev. Edward Paquette, who allegedly fondled him 20 to 25 times at Christ the King Church in Burlington from 1976 to 1978.

Jerome O'Neill, a lawyer representing more than two dozen people suing the diocese, said $2.2 million was the largest compensatory damage award yet issued against Vermont's largest religious denomination.

The largest verdict against the diocese in Vermont, which is now on appeal, was $8.7 million, but the bulk of that verdict was in punitive damages.

Judge's ruling

O'Neill said in the current case, Judge Helen Toor barred him from introducing allegations of misconduct by the diocese that might have resulted in a punitive damage award in this case as well.

A voice message left Friday for a lawyer for the diocese, Daniel Burchard, was not immediately returned. An e-mail sent to a colleague in his firm also drew no response.

The state Supreme Court decision dealt with the case of James Turner of Virginia Beach, Va., and formerly of Derby. Turner agreed while his case was pending to have his name revealed publicly.

Turner charged that when he was 16, Rev. Alfred Willis sexually abused him in a motel room in Albany, N.Y., after a ceremony in which Turner's brother was ordained as a priest. Turner also alleged that Willis, a priest in Vermont at the time, later tried to molest him again at his family's home in Derby.

The high court's lengthy and complex ruling delved heavily into issues along the front line between church and state. It largely rejected the church's arguments that courts should have little to say about issues like whom it hires as priests.

The church had argued that the claim it negligently hired Willis wasn't a proper one for the court to consider. For that to happen would amount to excessive entanglement by government in a church's internal affairs, violating the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion, the church's lawyers argued.


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