Church Official Acknowledges Secrecy Policy

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
June 23, 2007

An official for the state's Roman Catholic diocese admitted Friday the diocese hid information about priests who had molested children until a national bishops' group mandated it end such secrecy.

"Did this diocese find it difficult to comply with those mandates?" attorney Jerome O'Neill asked Monsignor Wendell Searles, a longtime diocesan official and its onetime vicar general, in a tense exchange during the third day of a priest-child molestation trial.

"In some areas, yes," Searles answered. The mandates were issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1990s.

James Turner reacts as he listens to witness Monsignor Wendell Searles read Turner's 2002 letter to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington in which Turner alleged he was molested by former priest Alfred Willis in 1977. Friday was the third day of a trial in Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington in a lawsuit by Turner against the diocese.
Photo by Glenn Russell

Searles, under questioning by O'Neill, also acknowledged the diocese chose to protect the Rev. Alfred Willis' privacy, rather than report him to the police, after it had received multiple claims that he had molested boys in Milton and Burlington in the late 1970s.

"Yes, we wanted to protect the priest's privacy," Searles said after a long pause.

The disclosures by Searles came during the third day of the trial involving claims by O'Neill's client, James Turner, that as a teenager he was molested by Willis in 1977.

Willis, defrocked by the diocese in 1985, made an out-of-court settlement with Turner in 2006; the diocese is defending itself in the current trial against claims it ignored early warning signals about Willis that led to the alleged abuse of Turner.

According to a 2002 letter from Turner to Searles made public in court Friday, Turner initially turned to the diocese for help in addressing problems he said were caused by the long-ago alleged molestation by Willis.

"I would like the diocese to provide me the financial means for me to get the help," he wrote. "I want to keep this out of legal hands if at all possible."

He also detailed what Willis alleged did to him at a Latham, N.Y., motel and later at the family home in Derby. As Searles, under instructions by diocesan attorney Thomas McCormick, read the letter out loud, Turner sobbed and held a handkerchief over his eyes.

Searles' 2002 letter responding to Turner's request expressed regret about the "experience" with Willis and recommended that, because Turner lived in Virginia, he contact the Roman Catholic diocese in Richmond and "ask about counseling possibilities."

"We would like to have a preliminary assessment and a plan for therapy along with estimated cost," Searles wrote back. On the witness stand Friday, Searles said he didn't hear about Turner again until Turner sued the diocese in 2004.

The surprise disclosure of the letters and the admission by Searles about the diocese's secrecy policy occurred after McCormick began asking Searles about the diocese's stepped-up efforts in recent years to deal with claims about pedophile priests.

O'Neill objected and questioned the relevancy of the exchange. After the jury was excused from the courtroom, McCormick explained to Judge Ben Joseph the information was needed to show O'Neill's request for punitive damages -- money demanded to assure the defendant would not repeat a misdeed -- was unnecessary.

Joseph overruled O'Neill's objection but, moments later, McCormick announced that he had decided not to pursue the line of questioning with Searles after all. O'Neill, however, quickly accepted the ruling and then used it to extract the admissions from Searles about the diocese's secrecy policies after the jury returned to the courtroom.

Asked later outside the courtroom if he felt Joseph's ruling had created an "even playing field" at the trial, diocesan lawyer David Cleary said he didn't think so.

"No, but I'm still in hopes," Cleary said.

Diocesan lawyers have long been critical of Joseph's handling of the 28 priest child-molestation cases on file at Chittenden County Superior Court. In 2006, The diocese twice asked to have Joseph step down as the presiding judge in one of the cases. Both times, an administrative judge rejected the request.

Among the other admissions by Searles was an acknowledgement that the diocese continued until 2002 to require molestation victims seeking out-of-court settlements to sign confidentiality agreements promising not to disclose details of the settlements.

Under questioning from O'Neill, Searles also told the jury the Vermont diocese is one of only two dioceses in the country that still has not fully implemented a program required by the national bishops' group to train church workers about detecting and preventing child abuse.

Later Friday afternoon, the jury was shown portions of two 2005 videotaped depositions of former Bishop Kenneth Angell, who was said to be too ill to attend the trial personally.

In one of the depositions, Angell was asked repeatedly by O'Neill if the late Bishop John Marshall should have reported another priest, Ed Paquette, to the police based on evidence the diocese had that Paquette had molested boys in three states, including Vermont.

"I don't believe he had an obligation to report," Angell said after a long pause.

Asked if the diocese would have called police if the same kind of molestation had been carried out by a janitor or teacher at a Catholic school, Angell said, "I presume so."

Turner is expected to testify Monday when the trial resumes.

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


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