Catholic Church Admits Guilt, Settles Priest Misconduct Charge for $150,000 - Apr. 7, 2004

By Kevin O'Connor
Times Argus [Vermont]
Downloaded April 7, 2004

Vermont's Catholic Church has paid $150,000 and released an unprecedented admission of past actions to settle the last priest misconduct lawsuit against it.

In return, Robert Douglas II, a 38-year-old Burlington man, will drop his court case against the state diocese and the former Rev. Alfred Willis, who was a priest in Burlington, Montpelier and Milton before being defrocked in 1985.

Douglas says he was 13 when Willis sexually abused and exploited him at St. Ann's Catholic Church in Milton in 1979.

"All the while this was happening at St. Ann's parish, the diocese knew Alfred Willis was completely untrustworthy with children," Douglas said Tuesday.

The diocese, in response, admitted in writing it knew Willis had faced sexual misconduct charges as early as seminary, but transferred him repeatedly without telling churchgoers of his problematic history, even when it asked the Vatican to defrock him after determining he was guilty of child abuse.

The settlement comes a month after the diocese paid $120,000 to Michael Bernier, a 46-year-old California investment executive who filed similar court charges against the Rev. James McShane, who resigned as a Rutland pastor last year after working as director of the state church's Office of Youth Ministry and chaplain for the Vermont Boy Scouts and Catholic Camp Holy Cross in Colchester.

Douglas limited his response to comments approved by his lawyer, Jerome O'Neill of Burlington, as church lawyers had obtained a court order prohibiting the release of certain specifics.

"I insisted that as part of my settlement with the diocese, the diocese must reveal how it handled complaints against Alfred Willis," Douglas said. "If the diocese had not agreed to disclose this information, I would have insisted that we take the case to trial. I wanted the public to learn the truth about what happened to me and other children. I also wanted to make public what the diocese chose to do that enabled Alfred Willis to abuse me and other children in Milton."

The diocese, in a three-page joint statement with Douglas, said it first heard about "an issue of sexual conduct relating to Mr. Willis" in the mid-1970s from the rector in charge of St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Md. The Vermont bishop at the time, John Marshall, nevertheless assigned the new priest to St. Anthony parish in Burlington and then St. Augustine parish in Montpelier.

In 1978, Marshall was said to have heard Willis was "sexually involved" with boys in Burlington while stationed in Montpelier.

"Willis denied all the allegations," the statement said. "Bishop Marshall ordered Willis to seek psychological counseling and directed that Willis see a psychiatrist and visit with the parents of the boys to explain his behavior and lack of ill intent."

Marshall transferred Willis to Milton in 1979, but was said to have stayed silent about the priest's problems until 1980, when St. Ann's parishioners made charges of their own.

"Some of the concerned parishioners at St. Ann's parish had consulted with the state's attorney, who then began to investigate the situation," the statement said. "As a part of that investigation, the state's attorney asked Bishop Marshall to meet with him. The state's attorney chose not to prosecute Willis."

Marshall removed Willis from Milton and was said to have required him to attend a spiritual retreat in Virginia and a treatment clinic in New Mexico. At the same time, a diocesan tribunal secretly heard testimony from parents, including Douglas' father, "on the ground that Willis had committed sexual offenses with minors under 16 years of age," the statement said.

"In August 1985, the diocese issued a decree dismissing Willis from the clerical state," the statement concluded. "The Vatican subsequently confirmed this dismissal."

Douglas said he had attended the Milton church with his parents, older brother and three older sisters.

"By choosing not to inform anyone in Milton of Willis' history, the diocese allowed Willis to leach his way into the life of my family and other families," he said. "He became a close friend, confidant and someone our parents thought they could trust with their children."

But Douglas didn't learn what happened to Willis until, prompted by press accounts of other cases, he filed a lawsuit last year in Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington.

"I found myself experiencing severe depression, insomnia, night terror, major anxiety and social anxiety," he said. "I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder."

Douglas, once an ice cream "flavor designer" for Ben & Jerry's, said he couldn't work as a result. He added that even with the diocese's admissions, he still had questions.

"How many children did Alfred Willis molest starting with St. Anthony's parish? How many children did Alfred Willis molest after the bishop learned of his sexual abuse of boys at St. Anthony's? How many children has Alfred Willis sexually molested since he left St. Ann's parish because the diocese did not push to have him criminally prosecuted? I feel that the diocese betrayed my family and me by transferring Alfred Willis to Milton, where he could prey on more children."

As part of the settlement, Willis will pay Douglas $20,000. The former priest, now of Virginia, did not return a reporter's call. He is represented by lawyer John Gravel of Burlington.

"Mr. Willis will not make any comment," his lawyer said.

Marshall died in 1994. Lawyer David Cleary of Rutland spoke Tuesday for the diocese and its current leader, Bishop Kenneth Angell.

"The reason there was a settlement was the insistence of the bishop to bring closure to these cases," Cleary said. "In the times this was going on, in the late '70s, there was a lot of reliance of psychological evaluation in terms of continued fitness. It certainly turned out that reliance might have been misplaced."

With the latest settlement, the church has spent more than $700,000 to settle cases against Vermont priests since 1950. (The figure doesn't include more than $2 million spent for compensation, counseling and legal fees related to charges of child abuse by workers at the diocese's former St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington.)

The diocese doesn't have insurance for such cases, so it will have to pay for settlements with money on hand.

"There's nothing here that's being paid out of any of the charity funds," Cleary said.

The Vermont church faced at least four lawsuits after state Attorney General William Sorrell announced an investigation two years ago against almost a dozen recently practicing priests and 30 former priests.

According to the diocese, 31 people have reported credible charges against 25 priests in the past five decades, with all alleged sexual misconduct occurring before 1989.

All but one of the clergy have died, resigned, retired or aren't allowed to practice publicly, the diocese says. One priest was placed on leave and reinstated in 2002 after review by the attorney general's office.

Sorrell hasn't charged anyone criminally, but only because the claims found credible are too old to prosecute under the state's various statutes of limitations. Speaking Tuesday, Sorrell said if the church had reported Douglas' charges to the state during its 1981 tribunal, "in all likelihood there would have been criminal prosecution."

"It saddens me greatly to hear this," the attorney general said. "But it makes me feel all the better to know the Legislature has changed the law so we won't have a recurrence of this kind of repeated conduct in the future. If this information came to church officials today, they would be required to turn it over to the state forthwith."

Douglas, for his part, said he did all he could do.

"As a kid, I told. As time went on, I thought, 'There have to be other victims.' I needed to get my story out and make people aware what actually happened."

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