Diocese asks to bar judge from church lawsuits

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(Host) At an unusual hearing in Montpelier this week, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington asked a court to prevent a judge from hearing future lawsuits against the church.

The suits involve allegations of sexual abuse by a former diocese priest.

VPR’s Steve Zind was at the courthouse.

(Zind) Earlier this year the diocese agreed to pay a record $965,000 settlement in a sexual abuse case involving the Reverend Edward Paquette. Paquette was a priest in Vermont in the 1970s.

At the time, diocese lawyer David Cleary was critical of a number of pre-trial rulings made by Superior Court Judge Ben Joseph and the judge’s lifting of a gag order in the case. With fifteen more lawsuits pending alleging abuse by Paquette, the stakes are extremely high for the church.

The diocese says a string of similarly costly settlements would be catastrophic and it has asked that Joseph be prevented from hearing any more of the cases.

Cleary said Joseph’s decisions have made it difficult for the diocese to defend itself.

He told Administrative Judge Amy Davenport that he made his concerns known to Joseph.

(Cleary) “I said to Judge Joseph at one point that I really felt as if I was lying at the bottom of a wagon wheel rut and he was driving the wagon. I think his reply was, well that’s my job,’ or words to that effect. That is not the job of a judge in the courts of the state of Vermont.”

(Zind) Cleary says in thirty-six years of practice he’s never asked for a judge to be recused from a case, but he says Joseph has taken what he called a vituperative approach toward the diocese and made comments that that show a clear bias. Cleary says at one point Joseph indicated that he planned to try all of the remaining cases against the church. Cleary interpreted the comment as a threat.

(Cleary) “The background of the motion to recuse is grounded in part, substantially, in threats, literally threats that have been issued by this judge in this case against the diocese.”

(Zind) Jerome O’Neill represented the plaintiff in the earlier case involving the Reverend Paquette. He’s also the lawyer for the pending cases against the diocese that allege abuse by the same priest.

Following Cleary’s presentation O’Neill told the court that Joseph showed no bias in his handling of the case.

(O’Neill) “I feel as though I’ve just heard a fictionalized version of history. I was there! I never heard any threats.”

(Zind) O’Neill says in filing the motion to recuse Judge Joseph, the diocese is trying to intimidate the judiciary in order to get a judge who might rule more favorably for the church.

(O’Neill) “And the advantage the diocese seeks is fairly simple, which is to say, ok. We’ll take a run at the judge. We’re going to lose but we’re also going to try to make sure this judge doesn’t sit on any more of these cases’.”

(Zind) Church lawyer Cleary told Judge Davenport that the diocese wasn’t judge shopping and would accept any judge but Joseph.

Davenport didn’t rule on the request Wednesday, but it was clear from her comments and questions that she didn’t agree with some of the arguments put forth by the diocese lawyer.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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