Retrial a First for Priest Molestation Cases

Burlington Free Press
November 28, 2007

The Burlington retrial of a case involving claims by a Virginia man who says he was molested as a 16-year-old by a priest in 1977 might be history in the making, says the director of a national group that monitors priest sex abuse lawsuits.

David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said Tuesday that few such lawsuits ever go to trial and none of the cases has ever been the subject of a retrial.

"It's definitely an anomaly, but a significant one," Clohessy said. "It shows that there is increasing resolution on the part of survivors of priest sexual abuse to use the legal process to expose the complicity of church officials in such cases."

James Turner, 46, of Virginia Beach, Va., contends he was molested by the then-Rev. Alfred Willis in a Latham, N.Y., motel room and that Willis later tried to molest him again at his family's home in Derby before Turner rebuffed him.

Willis settled with Turner last year. Turner's pending case in Chittenden Superior Court is against the state's Roman Catholic diocese, which Turner claims failed to protect him from the abuse. The diocese contends it had no reason in mid-1977 to think Willis would molest anyone.

The first trial ended in a mistrial in June when the presiding judge decided that diocesan lawyers had ignored a court order by questioning Turner on the witness stand about matters that they knew were off limits for the trial.

The second trial began Monday. All the testimony since lawyers gave their opening statements Monday morning has involved videotaped recordings of what witnesses said at the first trial, or in one case, a pretrial deposition.

Tuesday, jurors watched tape of Monsignor Wendell Searles, the diocese's former vicar general, reading from church documents about how Willis molested boys at parishes in Burlington, Milton and Montpelier in the late 1970s. The diocese removed Willis from priestly service in 1980 and he was later defrocked.

Searles also was shown reading the contents of a letter Turner wrote him in 2002, detailing what Willis had done to him in 1977. As the letter was read, Turner stared at the floor as he sat next to his lawyers in the courtroom.

Clohessy's group, in a statement issued Monday, praised Turner for pursuing the case. "He should be applauded for taking this brave step," the statement said.

Only 31 civil lawsuits alleging priest sexual abuse of children have made it to trial in the United States since 1986, according to, a Massachusetts organization that monitors such proceedings.

Clohessy said he is aware of just one case where a second trial was considered. In May, a Fresno, Calif., priest sex abuse case slated for a retrial after the first case had ended with a hung jury was settled through a secret binding arbitration proceeding.

Clohessy said Turner's willingness to undergo a second trial has a downside.

"It's more painful and risky than simply accepting a settlement," Clohessy said.

Turner, asked how he was feeling as he walked on Church Street with his wife during a break in the trial Tuesday, said he "wished this had been resolved in June." He declined further comment.

Turner is expected to take the stand at some point today when the trial resumes.

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


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.