Church Child Molestation Case Goes to Trial Today

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press [Vermont]
June 20, 2007

Opening arguments begin today in the case of a Virginia man who has sued the state's Roman Catholic diocese alleging it failed to supervise a priest who molested him as a teenager in 1977.

James Turner, 46 of Virginia Beach, Va., claims Alfred Willis performed a sex act on him at a Latham, N.Y., motel in June 1977 and later attempted to molest him again at the Turner family home in Derby.

Willis also has been accused of molesting altar boys in Burlington, Milton and Montpelier, where he was a diocesan parish priest. One case involving claims against Willis was settled for $170,000 in 2004. Willis was suspended from priestly duties in 1980 by then-Bishop John Marshall and was later defrocked.

"I am very pleased that the trial is moving forward and the jury will have the opportunity to consider my charges against the diocese," Turner said Tuesday in a statement released by his attorney, Jerome O'Neill. Turner has given the Free Press permission to identify him in its coverage of the case.

Turner's case marks the first time the diocese will be on trial for allegedly failing to protect children from priests suspected of molesting children.

All past Vermont cases involving pedophile priest claims ended prior to trial when the diocese made financial settlements with the alleged victims. To date, the Vermont diocese has paid more than $1.7 million to settle such claims.

David Cleary, a diocesan attorney, said in an interview Tuesday that the diocese would have preferred to settle this case, too, but is now looking forward to telling its side of the Turner story to the jury.

"The diocese tried very hard to resolve it," Cleary said of the Turner case. "We hope to be able to focus on the facts of the Turner case but indeed there will unfortunately be other claims and assertions that will make that difficult."

O'Neill told Judge Ben Joseph at a final pre-trial hearing Tuesday that the jury will hear evidence the diocese had a policy of ignoring warnings about priests who molested boys and treated such incidents as "homosexual acts" instead of child sex abuse.

"We will show that 'homosexual acts' was a cover term for people who engaged in sex with a child," O'Neill told Joseph. "When you read the documents, there's no mistake what the policy was."

Tom McCormick, another diocesan attorney, told the judge Tuesday that it would be "extremely prejudicial" to the diocese for the judge to permit O'Neill to introduce evidence about the conduct of other priests who allegedly molested children.

He said the focus of the case should only be on the role of the diocese in what happened with Turner.

"There is no indication in the Turner case that Bishop Marshall had concerns with Willis prior to the incidents involved in this case," McCormick said. He told Joseph the diocese would file objections to O'Neill's approach during the trial.

Joseph has indicated he will let O'Neill introduce evidence about the way the diocese generally handled claims of priest-child sexual complaints. Joseph said Tuesday he hasn't decided yet if the jury could use the information to determine its verdict in the case.

"I'll take it all up individually," Joseph said at one point. "This trial, I've never dealt with anything like this in my experience."

The first witness O'Neill expects to call after opening arguments will be the Rev. Wendell Searles, the diocese's former vicar general. O'Neill plans to question Searles about the diocese's handling of complaints of child sexual abuse by priests.

Turner is expected to testify on his own behalf later this week or early next week.

Willis, who reached an undisclosed, out-of-court settlement separately with Turner last year, lives in Leesburg, Va., and will not attend the Chittenden Superior Court trial. He has claimed Turner's allegations are "unfounded."

Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or


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