Key 1979 Meeting Detailed in Priest Abuse Trial

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
June 22, 2007

A meeting 28 years ago between the bishop of the state's Roman Catholic diocese and Chittenden County prosecutors became a focus of attention Thursday during the second day of a priest-child molestation trial in Burlington.

Susan Via, a former deputy prosecutor, testified by videotape that Bishop John Marshall met with then Chittenden County State's Attorney Mark Keller, herself and two other deputy prosecutors in 1979 after parents of several altar boys in Milton complained that their sons had been molested by the Rev. Alfred Willis.

"The bishop tried to assure Mark that either he or people from his diocese had spoken to the families involved," Via said in a 2006 deposition taped at her home in Tucson, Ariz. "He told Mark that all of them felt it would not be in their children's interest to have them testify or participate in a criminal investigation and prosecution."

Attorneys for the plaintiff in the case, James Turner, see the meeting as proof of its contention the diocese had a policy of tolerating priests like Willis who allegedly molested children.

Diocesan attorneys objected Thursday to having the information about the meeting introduced at the trial. They argue the trial should focus on whether Turner's claims are true and if the diocese had any idea Willis might be a child molester before hiring him.

Turner claims he was molested as a teenager by Willis in 1977 because the diocese ignored warnings about Willis' sexual behavior and ordained him as a priest. The diocese is the sole defendant in the trial; Willis reached an out-of-court settlement with Turner in 2006.

Via said in her video deposition, projected on a wall across from the 12-person jury, that when it appeared Keller was not persuaded by Marshall's appeal, the bishop's mood changed and he warned that going forward with prosecuting Willis would constitute "the sin of scandal."

Via, Keller and Norman Blais, another prosecutor who attended the 1979 meeting with Marshall, are Catholics.

Via said Keller, who is now a judge, "visibly stiffened" when Marshall made the remark and that the meeting then abruptly ended. Later, Via said she and Blais told Keller that Marshall's comment was insulting and insisted that the Willis investigation proceed. Keller agreed, but investigators were unable to get a family to go through with a prosecution.

"I recall the investigator telling me that one of the fathers of one of the boys was basically unhinged by the whole situation; couldn't talk about it," Via said. "The wife, the mother, was extremely tearful and hysterical."

Diocesan records of the meeting, preserved in a 1985 document detailing the diocese's decision to defrock Willis, said Marshall "made no effort to influence the direction of the State's Attorney's thinking."

"The State's Attorney was of the conviction that the harm, which would emanate through media notoriety about the civil prosecution, to the victims of the alleged molestation, to their families, to the church and society as a whole, could not outweigh his responsibility to prosecute Father Willis." Marshall died in 1994.

Keller said in an interview Thursday he does not remember meeting with Marshall, but recalls meeting with "a priest" about the Willis molestation claims. "I never remember hearing about the 'sin of scandal,'" Keller said.

Blais said he does remember the Marshall meeting and how he and Via urged Keller to let them pursue the criminal investigation of Willis. He declined comment on the "sin of scandal" remark, saying he might be called by the diocese to testify at the trial about that.

Earlier Thursday, Monsignor Wendell Searles returned to the witness stand and read out loud portions of church records at the direction of Turner's attorney, Jerome O'Neill.

In one of the documents, a seminary school that Willis was attending in the mid-1970s reported to a diocesan official that Willis was suspected of having an "alleged homosexual condition" but that efforts to prove the claim were unsuccessful.

O'Neill, noting that priests are supposed to be celibate, asked Searles if the bishop ought to have been informed about the homosexual allegation regarding Willis.

"Yes," Searles said.

Later Thursday, clerical psychotherapist Richard Sipe, testifying on Turner's behalf, told the jury that celibacy was not strictly enforced among priests and his research of diocesan records found that 109 Vermont priests had engaged in child abuse over the past 50 years.

Thomas McCormick, a diocesan attorney, asked Sipe if his review of the diocese documents had turned up any evidence the church had information that Willis was a potential child molester prior to the incidents involving Turner.

"Did you see any such documents? Yes or no," McCormick asked.

"There is no document," Sipe answered. "Sometimes the absence of a document speaks as loudly as the presence of a document."

Michael Gay of South Burlington, who in 2006 won a $965,000 settlement from the diocese involving claims of abuse by another priest, attended part of Thursday's trial. He said he wanted to be there to support Turner.

"You don't know how hard it is to do what he's doing," Gay said.

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


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