Diocese Wants Its Conduct in Molestation Cases Suppressed

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press [Vermont]
June 2, 2007

A lawyer for the state's Roman Catholic diocese appealed to the presiding judge in an upcoming priest sex abuse trial to suppress evidence about how the church handled other child molestation claims against priests over the years.

"A 50-year smear is just going to confuse the issues," diocesan attorney Tom McCormick told Chittenden County Superior Court Judge Ben Joseph on Friday. "It's going to be a tremendous waste of judicial time and it will be unjust."

McCormick made the remark during a pre-trial hearing in the case of a Virginia Beach, Va., man who claims that former Rev. Alfred Willis performed a sex act on him in a Latham, N.Y., motel room when he was a teenager in 1977 and tried to molest him a second time at a home in Milton later that year.

The Burlington Free Press does not identify the alleged victims of sexual abuse without their permission.

Willis, who lives in Leesburg, Va., is not a defendant in the case. He was defrocked in 1980s after the parents of altar boys in Burlington and Milton complained that he had molested their sons. One case against Willis and the diocese was settled for $170,000 in 2004.

Jerome O'Neill, who has represented more than 30 alleged victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Vermont, acknowledged there is no proof that Willis molested anyone before the 1977 incidents but said the diocese's allegedly lax attitude about such claims is relevant to the case.

"As late as 2002, this diocese's policy was that people like Alfred Willis have to be treated with kid gloves," O'Neill said. "There's a letter from (former) Bishop Angell in May of 2002 apologizing to him for having to report him to the Attorney General's Office." Bishop Kenneth Angell retired in 2005.

At another point, the two lawyers locked horns over the relevance of a meeting in 1978 or 1979 between then-Bishop John Marshall and Chittenden County prosecutors about allegations Willis had molested altar boys.

A former deputy state's attorney, Susan Via, has said in a 2006 deposition that Marshall pressured the prosecutors, including then-Chittenden County State's Attorney Mark Keller, not to pursue the case.

"Bishop Marshall was interested in reassuring Mark and the office that the church was responding appropriately to the priest's criminal behavior and that he was getting treatment for it," Via said in her deposition, on file at the court.

Via said when Keller appeared unswayed by Marshall's assurances, Marshall told Keller he would be committing the "sin of scandal" if he pursued the case. Keller, now a judge, said in a 2006 interview with the Free Press that he does not remember the meeting with Marshall.

Joseph put off a decision on the dispute between the two lawyers but said that because the diocese, not Willis, is the defendant in the case, it is important to understand how the diocese's conduct handled abuse allegations in the period after the incidents with the victim allegedly took place.

The trial in the case is scheduled to get under way June 18.

Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or e-mail at


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