|Supreme Court Overturns State's First Priest Abuse Case
Statute of Limitations, Biased Juror Issues behind Ruling
By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
October 10, 2009
[Supreme Court decision: Read the court's decision to reverse the Turner case]
The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday reversed the verdict in the first priest molestation case to go to trial in the state, issuing its ruling as the outcome of the latest such case was about to be decided.
In a 5-0 decision, the high court said Judge Matthew Katz was wrong to overturn a part of a 2007 jury verdict that found former altar boy James Turner waited too long to file his lawsuit against the state's Roman Catholic diocese for being molested by the Rev. Alfred Willis.
• Supreme Court decision: Read the court's decision to reverse the Turner case
• Photo gallery: More images from Friday's judgment against the Vermont diocese
Turner claimed Willis molested him at a Latham, N.Y., motel after a family celebration to honor Turner's brother's becoming a priest.
The justices said the evidence showed Turner learned from his brother in the 1980s that Willis had been kicked out of the diocese for molesting boys.
Turner by then was an adult, the high court said, and he should have looked into pursuing a legal claim then, under the statute of limitations. Katz had rejected that part of the jury's verdict while approving the jury's $15,000 damages award to Turner.
"The plaintiff knew that Willis had abused others," said the opinion, written by Justice John Dooley. "The time for filing an action against defendant had commenced."
The justices, however, also agreed that one of the jurors who sat on the Turner case was too biased toward the diocese to have been on the panel.
"The appropriate remedy when a biased juror sits on the jury is to vacate the jury verdict and remand for a new trial," Dooley wrote.
As a result, the high court ordered that the case should to be retried in its entirety.
Attorneys for the diocese and Turner said the justices' opinion likely would not affect the case decided Friday, nor the 2008 verdicts in two other cases involving abuse by the Rev. Edward Paquette. The 2008 verdicts are under appeal before the state Supreme Court.
In another part of the high court's 30-page ruling in the Turner case, the justices agreed the diocese should pay lawyers for Turner $112,000 in sanctions for violating the trial judge's order prohibiting discussion of Willis' relationship with Turner's brother.
That occurred in the first Turner trial, when diocesan attorney David Cleary pressed Turner on the witness stand about the nature of his brother's relationship with Willis, and whether that was a source of anger for Turner.
Judge Ben Joseph declared a mistrial June 25, 2007, and then agreed with Turner's attorney that the diocese be required to pay all of the Turner legal team's court costs to date, or about $112,000. The Supreme Court affirmed Joseph's decision in Friday's ruling
The issues involving the statute of limitations and the biased juror occurred during the second Turner trial, about five months later.
Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or e-mail at email@example.com
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