A Northeast Kingdom priest pleaded innocent Monday to allegations he fondled a naked 18-year-old man after taking him to Canada and buying him beer.
The Rev. Stephen J. Nichols, 46, appeared in Franklin District Court in St. Albans to answer to a felony charge of lewd and lascivious conduct brought against him by the state Attorney General's Office.
Nichols and his lawyer, Mark Kaplan of Burlington, declined to talk to reporters. But in court papers, the priest told friends that his accuser — a St. Johnsbury man identified only by his initials — "was the sexual aggressor and afterwards asked for money to keep quiet."
According to an affidavit written by state investigator Thomas E. Howell, Nichols first met the teenager when the boy was 16 and seeking to convert to Catholicism.
The youth, who was 7 when his father died, was said to have visited Nichols first at St. Elizabeth Church in Lyndonville and then at the parish pastor's home in Richford, a Franklin County town on the Canadian border.
The boy "looked up to Nichols as someone he could talk with as a peer," Howell wrote in the affidavit, as he "had no other males to discuss serious issues with such as a decision to convert."
Nichols offered to mark the young man's 18th birthday in February 2005 by taking him to Montreal, the affidavit said. There, the clergyman allegedly bought the teenager beer, cursed, escorted him to a casino and suggested they enter an adult-only store so he could show him a book about oral sex.
The young man "thought this was a little weird since Nichols was a priest," the affidavit said. But "Nichols told [him] that when he was in Canada he was not a priest, just a person."
Two months later, Nichols reportedly returned north with the young man, this time visiting Cowansville, Quebec, about 20 miles north of the priest's home.
The teenager said the priest took him to a pool hall, asked if he had seen gay pornography and bought them at least two pitchers of beer. The young man said he vomited at least twice on the way back to Nichols' home. Once there, the priest reportedly told him to take a shower so he could wash the teenager's clothes.
"Nichols kept asking him over and over if he wanted Nichols in the shower with him," the affidavit said. After the young man repeatedly said no, "Nichols then moved the shower curtain and reached in and touched" the teenager's buttocks.
When the young man moved to the living room, the priest began touching the teenager's penis, the affidavit said. The young man "told Nichols repeatedly, approximately 20 times, that he did not think they should be doing this" and "indicated that he was upset and scared" when the priest followed him into bed before leaving shortly after.
Three days later, the young man said he confronted Nichols about the incident. The priest, according to the affidavit, said "they were both very drunk and hoped that (the teenager) did not feel the need to talk to the police. Nichols also made an offer of money," which the young man said he declined.
The statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington hired a private investigator upon hearing of the allegations a year ago. That investigator told the state Attorney General's Office that he had found the accuser to be "calm, straightforward and credible in his account of what had happened."
U.S. Border Patrol records show one of the priest's four vehicles crossed from Canada into Richford after midnight on Feb. 19, 2005, and April 21, 2005, the affidavit said.
Another part of the church review required Nichols to meet with Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore R. Matano and other diocesan officials.
"Nichols denied the allegations and at first did not share any information about the trips to Canada," the affidavit said. "During subsequent meetings with diocese officials, Nichols admitted to some details of the trips. During these meetings, it became clear to diocese officials that their own internal investigation revealed many more details than Nichols provided to them and that Nichols' version differed from their investigator's report."
"Further," Howell wrote in the affidavit, "diocese officials told me that during these meetings with Nichols, they found him to be less than forthright."
Nichols and his lawyer didn't talk to reporters Monday. But in the affidavit, the priest told a friend that the young man, while in the shower, "hollered … that he could not get the faucet to work." The teenager then "grabbed Nichols' hand and placed it on his genitals," according to the priest's account.
Nichols told friends that the teenager later demanded an unreported amount of money to stay quiet.
The priest said "when he looks back on this situation," the affidavit said, "one could see where it could be 'taken in the wrong light.'"
Assistant Attorney General Cindy J. Maguire has reserved comment on the case and could not be reached Monday.
Nichols, who has served as director of the Vermont Catholic Church's lay ministry training program, is on a leave of absence as pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Lyndonville and Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Danville, pending the outcome of the case.
Bishop Matano was one of several church officials to attend the arraignment.
"This is a matter for the courts to decide," the bishop told an Associated Press reporter. "Now, I pray for a just resolution and I pray for all the parties concerned."
Vermont's Catholic Church currently faces 25 sexual misconduct lawsuits in Chittenden Superior Court involving nine former priests. Of those cases, 17 involve the Rev. Edward Paquette, the subject of a record $965,000 settlement in an initial lawsuit this spring.
Nichols is scheduled for a second court hearing Oct. 10. If convicted, the priest could face a prison sentence of up to five years.