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Edward Colomb v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington

September 28, 2012

EDWARD COLOMB, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ROMAN CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF BURLINGTON, VERMONT, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William K. Sessions III District Court Judge

Memorandum Opinion and Order

Edward Colomb has brought suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, Inc. ("the Diocese") seeking compensatory and exemplary damages for injuries he suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse. The Diocese has moved for summary judgment on several grounds: 1) Colomb's suit is time-barred; 2) Colomb's suit offends the First Amendment's Free Exercise and Establishment clauses; 3) Vermont's statute of limitations for actions based on childhood sexual abuse violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; 4) the potential for disparate damage awards in childhood sexual abuse cases in Vermont violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments; and 5) imposing punitive damages is unwarranted and unconstitutional. The Diocese's motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 46, is denied.*fn1

I. Factual Background*fn2

Colomb was abused in 1974 when he was 13 years old by Father Edward Paquette, a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese. Although he has known all along about the abuse, he only recently learned that lawsuits had been filed against the Diocese, seeking to hold it responsible for the sexual abuse perpetrated by Paquette and other priests.

Vermont began investigating reports of priest abuse in 2002, the first lawsuit against the Diocese was filed in 2002, and the first press reports of sexual abuse by priests in Vermont emerged in 2002. Several cases have gone to trial; several cases have settled. Colomb cannot pinpoint a time when he connected his longstanding psychological and emotional difficulties with the abuse he suffered as a child.

Colomb filed his lawsuit against the Diocese on October 20, 2010, when he was 49 years old. His complaint alleges that the Diocese negligently hired, supervised, and retained Paquette; breached a fiduciary duty to Colomb; fostered an atmosphere in which child sexual abuse could and did take place; failed to provide treatment to victims of the abuse; failed to prevent the intentional infliction of harm; engaged in outrageous conduct that caused Colomb to suffer extreme emotional distress; and participated in a conspiracy to conceal and cover up child sexual abuse by employees of the Diocese.

Paquette and other priests were hired and retained by the Diocese despite known instances of sexual abuse in their histories. After Paquette was hired in 1972 the Diocese placed no restrictions on his duties, and he was assigned to a parish with a school. Paquette continued to molest children. When the pastor complained, the Diocese reassigned Paquette, but again placed no restrictions on his unsupervised interactions with children. A further reassignment resulted in his placement in a Burlington, Vermont parish with a school. Paquette repeatedly molested the altar boys of this parish. Although the pastor notified the Diocese in 1978, the Diocese did not notify the police, interview the victims or attempt to help them. Although local parents were irate, the Bishop remained determined to continue Paquette's assignment, although he restricted Paquette from training altar boys, and told him to avoid any activity that could be misinterpreted. The outcry was prolonged and widespread, however, and the Diocese eventually decided to terminate him. The Diocese did not refer the matter to law enforcement, nor did it follow up with its parishioners or Paquette's victims.

Paquette was not the only child molester among the Diocese's priests. Between 1963 and 2003 the Diocese received reports that seven Diocesan employees had molested children. The Diocese did not report any of them for criminal prosecution; it did not tell parents or children; and it did not immediately remove the reported offenders from contact with children. In some cases it took years for the Diocese to take action to restrict these employees from contact with children. The Diocese repeatedly covered up or minimized instances of sexual abuse by its priests.

II. Discussion

Summary judgment must be granted if the moving party "shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [it] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). "It is the movant's burden to show that no genuine factual dispute exists, . . . and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the non-movant's favor." Giannullo v. City of New York, 322 F.3d 139, 140 (2d Cir. 2003) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)).

The Court applies the substantive law of the state of Vermont as well as its statute of limitations in this diversity jurisdiction case. See Guaranty Trust Co. of N.Y. v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 108-12 (1945); accord Giordano v. Market America, Inc., 599 F.3d 87, 94 (2d Cir. 2010) (applying New York's substantive law and statute of limitations in case that arose in New York).

A. Statute of Limitations Defense

Section 522(a) of Title 12 of Vermont Statutes Annotated provides:

A civil action brought by any person for recovery of damages for injury suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse shall be commenced within six years of the act alleged to have caused the injury or condition, or six years of the time the victim discovered that the injury or condition was caused by that act, whichever period expires later. The victim need not establish which act in a series of continuing sexual abuse or exploitation incidents caused the injury. Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 522(a).

The statute was enacted in 1990, and applies retroactively "only to cases where 'the act of sexual abuse or the discovery that the injury or condition was caused by the act of sexual abuse occurred on or after July 1, 1984.'" Earle v. State, 743 A.2d 1101, 1104 (Vt. 1999) (quoting 1989, No. 292 (Adj. Sess.), § 4(b)). Given that the sexual abuse occurred in 1974, the statute applies retroactively only if Colomb discovered on or after July 1, 1984 that his injuries were caused by the sexual abuse he suffered. The Diocese apparently does not contest the applicability of the retroactivity provision. See id. at 1107 n.4 (distinguishing between the date of discovery under the retroactivity provision and the date of accrual under the statute of limitations).

Summary judgment is appropriate on statute of limitations grounds only if as a matter of law Colomb knew or should have known more than six years before he filed suit that his "injury or condition" was caused by the sexual abuse. See Turner v. Roman ...


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