Opening Arguments in Abuse Case

By Kevin O'Connor
Rutland Herald [Vermont]
June 21, 2007

Burlington — The plaintiff says it's about priest sexual misconduct. The defendant says it's about an accuser's desire to collect more than $1 million.

James Turner and the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington told conflicting stories Wednesday in Chittenden Superior Court at the start of the first recent abuse trial of its kind to reach a Vermont jury.

Turner, 46, of Virginia Beach, Va., says the former Rev. Alfred Willis — a priest in Burlington, Montpelier and Milton before being defrocked in 1985 — performed oral sex on him when he was 16 and staying at a Latham, N.Y., hotel in 1977 and tried to molest him again at the teenager's Derby home later that year.

Turner's lawyer, Jerome O'Neill of Burlington, charged Wednesday that the diocese knew Willis and at least three other priests dating back to 1963 had questionable sexual histories but were assigned to Vermont churches where they molested school-age boys.

"This diocese knew there were sexual issues regarding Willis but nonetheless ordained him," O'Neill said in his opening arguments. "It permitted these priests to retain the Roman collar — the trademark of trust. It chose to do nothing to protect the children."

For his first witness, O'Neill called the Rev. Wendell Searles, the former second-in-command at the diocese, and asked him to read aloud a series of confidential church letters reporting decades of problems with Vermont clergy.

The 78-year-old Searles spent almost four hours uttering such words as "genitals," "fondling," "masturbation," "molestation" and "pedophilia," and phrases including "took a child into his bed," "his behavior has been concurrent and compulsive" and "we might be faced with a civil suit."

In the most flagrant example, Searles had to read one internal letter whose subjects were identified only by their initials that said, "The fathers went from tent to tent and performed oral sex on the boys." One of those students was so upset, the letter continued, "he flunked that year in school."

In response, diocesan lawyer Thomas McCormick objected to the charges against priests other than Willis.

"That's not the Turner case," he said repeatedly.

According to the church attorney, the rector of Willis' seminary communicated concerns about the priest to the diocese's director of vocations "but later said upon investigation there was no need for concern."

"The diocese was unaware of Alfred Willis' propensities at the time Mr. Turner says he was abused."

McCormick said that even if the abuse took place, "this was not a diocesan function, this was a family function," and he believed the statute of limitations on prosecuting the case has passed. He told the jury of six men and six women: "The decision for you will be for whether the diocese today should be paying significant damages based on something Mr. Turner said happened 30 years ago at a family function."

McCormick also questioned the plaintiff's memory and motivation. He asked how Willis could have abused Turner in a hotel room where as many as eight people, including the priest's mother and the teenager's brother (a deacon at the time), were said to be sleeping.

According to McCormick, Turner's ex-girlfriend will testify during the trial that "they talked about how they could get a Mustang with the money they could get."

Turner will ask the jury for "a very large amount of money — well into seven figures," O'Neill confirmed. But the plaintiff's attorney said the sum would pay for therapy and living expenses for a former Vermonter who has suffered from post-traumatic stress, crying breakdowns, two failed marriages and several job shifts.

"He has difficulty with employers, he has difficulty with relationships," O'Neill said. "This will haunt him the rest of his life. Jim will need help for the rest of his life."

Willis, now 62 and living in Leesburg, Va., has told the court in a letter that "the claims against me are extremely upsetting and ... to the best of my memory, unfounded," but has settled with Turner for an undisclosed yet reportedly minimal sum of money.

The defrocked priest isn't attending the trial. But Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano, wearing a simple black suit and a white clerical collar, sat silently at the defendant's table Wednesday and declined comment otherwise.

The trial, which already has sparked extensive press coverage in Vermont and Virginia, promises to muddy the reputations of both the plaintiff and defendant.

Turner, his lawyer acknowledged, was once a "hypersexualized" man who filed for bankruptcy and didn't disclose all his past relationships when asked during preliminary proceedings.

The diocese faces charges it regularly reassigned priests while covering up their problems, paid off accusers for secrecy and, in 1981, pressured the Chittenden County State's Attorney's office into not prosecuting Willis.

And Willis was labeled "a pathological liar, a consummate actor and a psychopath," said O'Neill, reading from a 1983 letter written by John Marshall, the Vermont Catholic bishop from 1972 to 1992, who died in 1994.

Turner, who sat in court with his wife, will testify later in the trial. He will be the first of more than 30 recent accusers to tell their story to a jury, having tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement with the church.

At least six previous accusers resolved similar civil lawsuits against the diocese for a total of more than $1.5 million in settlements before their cases went to trial. In addition, Vermont's largest religious denomination faces 24 other misconduct cases against eight retired priests. One priest lost a case in 1989 in which a jury awarded his accuser $162,500.

Contact Kevin O'Connor at


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