Plaintiff Breaks down As Priest Reads Letter Describing Attacks

Associated Press, carried in WVEC [Vermont]
June 22, 2007

A man who says he was molested by a priest 30 years ago broke down in tears Friday as a former church official read aloud in court a letter he wrote to the church, describing the incidents.

James Turner, 46, of Virginia Beach, Va., who is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington for negligent supervision, hung his head and sobbed into a handkerchief as former Vicar General Rev. Wendell Searles read the letter on the witness stand.

In it, Turner said former Rev. Alfred Willis performed a sex act on him as he slept in a Latham, N.Y., hotel room where six other people were also spending the night after attending the 1977 ordination of Turner's brother. According to Turner, Willis — who has since been defrocked — molested him as he slept.

"I remember feeling very dirty all the next day," he said in the letter.

Months later, Willis — a family friend of the Turners — tried to do it again while staying at the Derby home of Turner's family, but Turner rebuffed him, jacking him up against a wall, he said.

Turner is suing the Diocese of Burlington over the alleged attacks, saying the Diocese knew or should have known of Willis' sexual behavior but ordained him as a priest anyway. He has agreed to have his name published in news stories about the case.

Willis, who was originally named as a defendant in the 2004 lawsuit, reached an out-of-court settlement in the case and is no longer part of it.

The suit says the Diocese covered up sex crimes by Willis and other priests and that it was more concerned with its legal liability and the reputations of the priests than with their alleged victims. The Diocese contends it had no notice that Willis was molesting children until after the alleged incidents with Turner, and that its handling of other priest sex claims is irrelevant to Turner's case.

Turner has yet to testify. He was expected to on Friday, but the questioning of Searles went longer than expected. Turner is expected to take the stand Monday when the trial resumes in Chittenden County Superior Court.

Searles, 78, the Diocese's former No. 2 man, said he acted as the church's point person on sex abuse cases before retiring and fielded Turner's initial complaint to the church in 2002. He said he apologized to Turner if a priest had abused him and instructed Turner to describe what happened in a letter, which Turner did.

In a reply letter, Searles told Turner: "Keep in mind, it was not the church that hurt you, but an errant priest."

Searles has been called on by Turner's lawyers to authenticate and read aloud from dozens of church documents about sex abuse complaints against Willis and other priests.

At one point Friday, he balked when he found a passage too unsettling. It quoted Willis saying that he got a sexual thrill when holding up a crucifix during Good Friday services, positioning it so that each parishioner coming before him would kiss a certain spot on Jesus Christ's body.

When Turner's lawyer, Jerome O'Neill, directed him to read the passage, he paused.

"I'm sorry that I have to read this aloud," he said.

Then he turned to Judge Ben Joseph and asked: "Do I have to?"

With that, O'Neill volunteered to read the passage for him and did.

Searles acknowledged that for years, the church protected the privacy of priests who had been accused, shielding them by keeping secret allegations made against them. O'Neill pressed him about whether the church had done so with Willis, who was later convicted in a 1981 church tribunal and declared "infamous."

"Yes, we wanted to protect his privacy," Searles said.


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