Diocese Making Little Progress in Priest Sex Abuse Cases

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press [Vertmont]
April 23, 2007

The state's Roman Catholic diocese has agreed to pay more than $1 million in the past 12 months to settle two cases alleging child molestation by former priests, but is the target of more child sex abuse cases today than it was a year ago.

Since April 20, 2006, when it paid Michael Gay of South Burlington $965,000 to settle his molestation claim, the diocese has settled one other case. During the period, it was the subject of 12 new lawsuits brought by people claiming that as children they were sexually assaulted by priests.

The slow court process is unlikely to pick up much speed in the foreseeable future, according to attorneys for both the diocese and the alleged victims.

"Each case involves a different individual who has a unique story to tell," said Tom McCormick, one of several lawyers representing the diocese. "We have to take time to listen to their stories and assess them. Clearly, we're interested in resolving these cases."

McCormick said the financial demands posed by the alleged victims also have to be balanced against other demands the diocese faces as it works to maintain its array of parishes, schools and nursing homes around the state.

Jerome O'Neill, lawyer for the victims in the 25 priest sex abuse cases now pending in Chittenden County Superior Court, said his clients want to resolve their claims against the church quickly and move on with their lives, but he doesn't think that will happen.

"It seems like it's going to be one at a time," he said last week. "I'm thinking of asking the court to set three or four of the cases for trial at the same time and see if that helps move things along."

Last week, following the diocese's decision to agree to a $135,000 settlement to resolve claims brought by Neil Morrissette of St. Johnsbury, Judge Ben Joseph set a June 18 trial date in the next case, filed by a Virginia Beach, Va., man against the church in 2004.

The man, whose brother was a priest, 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 Free Press does not identify the alleged victims of sexual abuse without their permission.

The diocese, in papers filed with the court, contends the man told family members about the conduct over the years and only sued in 2004 when he figured he could become "independently wealthy" after learning another alleged Willis victim had just won $170,000 settlement from the diocese.

The victim in the 2004 case, Robert Douglas II of Burlington, settled his case after the diocese agreed to sign a statement acknowledging it was warned that Willis was sexually involved with altar boys at parishes in Burlington and Montpelier before his transfer to a Milton parish in 1979.

Willis was suspended from priestly activities after Milton parents went to then-Bishop John Marshall in 1980 with allegations that Willis was molesting boys at the Milton parish, the statement signed by the diocese said. Willis now lives in Leesburg, Va.

For Joseph, who presided over the Gay and Morrissette cases, the upcoming trial in the third priest child molestation case is likely to be his last.

Judge Amy Davenport, the administrative judge for the state's District, Superior and Family Court judges, is expected to announce new assignments for most judges this spring. Joseph is unlikely to be assigned to Chittenden County Superior Court, where all the priest abuse cases reside.

In the last year, Joseph has been the target of two "recusal" efforts by diocesan lawyers, seeking to have him removed from presiding over the priest abuse cases, based on their claims that he was biased against the diocese. Davenport rejected both recusal requests.

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


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