Vermont Diocese Faces Sex Abuse Trial This Week

By Kevin O'Connor
Times Argus [Vermont]
June 17, 2007

James Turner isn't the first person to charge the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington with priest misconduct. But the 46-year-old may soon be the first of more than 30 recent accusers to tell their story to a jury.

Turner and Vermont Catholic Church officials are scheduled to appear in Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington this week to begin what could be a long and lurid child sexual abuse trial.

At least six people have resolved similar civil lawsuits against the diocese by accepting a financial settlement from the church before their cases went to a jury.

Lawyers for Turner and the diocese have tried but failed to negotiate a settlement. As a result, Chittenden Superior Court is set to select a jury Monday and start what could be a three-week trial Wednesday.

Turner 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, now of Virginia Beach, Va., also charges that the diocese knew Willis was sexually active as early as seminary "but took no action to remove him from the priesthood or to investigate his proclivities" until after the abuse took place, court papers say.

Willis, now 62 and living in Leesburg, Va., has denied the charges but has settled with Turner for an undisclosed "minimal amount," lawyers say. But the diocese, which has spent more than $1.5 million to settle previous lawsuits, has decided to defend itself rather than add to its current deficit of at least $1.3 million.

Church lawyers are expected to question how Willis could have abused Turner in a hotel room where they say the priest's mother and the teenager's brother — a church deacon at the time — also were staying.

Turner's attorney, Jerome O'Neill of Burlington, appears ready to counter with reams of documents showing the diocese knew several of its priests were abusing children before the 1977 incident but didn't stop it.

Turner's lawsuit isn't the first against Willis. In 2004, the diocese settled another case involving the priest by paying $150,000 and admitting in a three-page statement that it knew Willis had a problematic history as early as seminary yet transferred him repeatedly without telling churchgoers of his past.

The diocese acknowledged in its statement that it first heard about "an issue of sexual conduct" regarding Willis in the mid-1970s from the head of St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Md. ("It appears there was homosexuality going on, but nothing to do with pedophilia," church lawyer David Cleary of Rutland elaborated last week.)

The late John Marshall, Vermont Catholic bishop at the time, assigned the new priest to St. Anthony parish in Burlington and then St. Augustine parish in Montpelier. In 1978, Marshall heard Willis was "sexually involved" with boys in Burlington while stationed in Montpelier.

"Willis denied all the allegations," the 2004 statement said. "Bishop Marshall ordered Willis to seek psychological counseling and directed that Willis see a psychiatrist and visit with the parents of the boys to explain his behavior and lack of ill intent."

Marshall transferred Willis to Milton in 1979, but stayed silent about the priest's problems until 1980, when parishioners of St. Ann's Catholic Church made charges of their own.

"Some of the concerned parishioners at St. Ann's parish had consulted with the state's attorney, who then began to investigate the situation," the statement said. "As a part of that investigation, the state's attorney asked Bishop Marshall to meet with him."

Marshall removed Willis from Milton and required him to attend a spiritual retreat in Virginia and a treatment clinic in New Mexico. At the same time, a diocesan tribunal secretly heard testimony from parents "on the ground that Willis had committed sexual offenses with minors under 16 years of age," the statement said.

"In August 1985, the diocese issued a decree dismissing Willis from the clerical state," it concluded. "The Vatican subsequently confirmed this dismissal."

Upon release of the 2004 statement, Cleary said for the church: "In the times this was going on, in the late '70s, there was a lot of reliance of psychological evaluation in terms of continued fitness. It certainly turned out that reliance might have been misplaced."

But in comments last week, the lawyer added, "there's never been an allegation against Willis before Turner claims he was abused."

O'Neill, however, says the church had plenty of letters about other priests engaged in sexual misconduct before 1977 and should have seen the seminary's concerns about Willis as a "red flag."

In court paperwork filed this month, O'Neill said the church had letters showing it knew that the former Rev. Edward Paquette had abused boys in two states when it assigned him to parishes in Rutland in 1972, Montpelier in 1974 and Burlington in 1976.

The diocese hired a second unnamed priest in 1963 even though his former employer suggested he shouldn't receive "an assignment in a high school for boys because he has committed some bad acts with some servicemen," according to court papers. That priest later told Vermont church officials he went on to fondle a 13-year-old boy.

And the diocese took in a third priest in 1973 even after receiving warnings about "suspicion of bad moral conduct," court papers continue. That priest went on to molest several Vermont children.

In addition to settling at least six previous cases, Vermont's largest religious denomination faces 24 other misconduct lawsuits in Chittenden Superior Court against eight retired priests.

Kevin O'Connor:


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