Surprise Witness Backs up Priest Sex-Abuse Claim

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
November 30, 2007

A surprise witness in the case of a Virginia man who says he was molested by a priest in 1977 told the jury Thursday that the priest performed a sex act on him during a children's sleepover at a Burlington church two years earlier.

"I woke up sometime in the night to somebody who was touching me," the witness said.

"Who was that somebody?" asked Jerome O'Neill, a lawyer for James Turner of Virginia Beach, Va.

Turner, 47, has said the Rev. Alfred Willis molested him in a Latham, N.Y., motel room while seven friends and family members slept nearby.

"It was Al Willis," the witness answered.

The man's name was provided to the jury, but O'Neill said the man asked not to have his name released. The Burlington Free Press does not disclose the names of victims of alleged sex crimes without their permission.

The witness, who was 15 at the time of the alleged incident at St. Anthony's Catholic Church, said he did not tell anyone about what Willis allegedly did because he was scared.

"I kind of felt like, 'You did something wrong,' that it was my fault," the witness said. He said later that Willis garnered the nickname of "Deacon Al, your bedtime pal" among some teens at St. Anthony's.

Willis was a deacon at St. Anthony's in 1975 and later was ordained as a priest. The diocese removed him from priestly service in 1981 after receiving claims he had molested boys in Milton.

The surprise testimony came on the fourth day of the trial on Turner's claims that the state's Roman Catholic diocese was responsible for his abuse because it failed to properly supervise Willis.

The diocese does not dispute Turner's molestation claim, but said it had no knowledge before the 1977 motel incident that Willis might engage in sexual misconduct. Willis settled separately with Turner last year.

According to church documents, the diocese was told about Willis' sexual involvement with boys at St. Anthony's in early 1978. As a result of the complaints, Willis was reassigned to a Montpelier parish and told to visit with the "accusing parents" in Burlington.

"He was supposed to contact the victims' parents," the individual who testified Thursday wrote in an angry 2004 letter to the diocese obtained by the Free Press. "My parents were never contacted." He eventually accepted a $3,000 payment from the diocese in 2004 to settle his abuse claim.

O'Neill said the witness, who lives in North Carolina, volunteered to drive to Burlington to testify at the trial in return for money for gas, a hotel room and meals.

O'Neill was given permission by Judge Matthew Katz to put the witness on the stand after O'Neill complained that diocesan lawyer David Cleary had appeared to undermine the truth of Turner's motel molestation story while questioning Turner on Wednesday.

Turner, in his testimony Wednesday, had also described not telling anyone about the abuse after it occurred and how he didn't know what to do when he awoke in the motel room and found Willis molesting him.

Joseph Hasazi, a South Burlington psychologist who testified later Thursday on Turner's behalf, said Turner's inaction during and after the molestation was "plausible"

"He didn't know what to do," Hasazi said. "There was no preparation for an event like this."

Hasazi said in such a traumatic situation, people have three ways of reacting: to fight, flee or become immobile. He said Turner apparently felt to fight or run away was not an option under the circumstances.

Hasazi said his evaluation of Turner determined he was truthful about the incident and that his 25-year delay in directly confronting the impact of the abuse was not unusual. He said a recent study of victims of priest sexual abuse found that such victims wait an average of 18 years before disclosing what happened.

David Cleary, a diocesan attorney, questioned Hasazi's assertions. Cleary asked Hasazi if it was possible for one to answer questions from the test in a way that would embellish the impact of an abuse incident.

Hasazi said it was possible, but more likely that he would be able to catch someone faking their condition.

"I will bet you couldn't," Cleary said, triggering an objection from O'Neill.

At another point, Cleary had the computerized results of a psychological test Hasazi did of Turner projected on the wall of the courtroom and asked Hasazi to explain why he said Turner was doing worse now than what was described in the test's findings.

"I think he is doing more poorly now because a process like this is extremely stressful," Hasazi said, referring to the trial.

Also testifying Thursday was Turner's wife, Denise, who said she is an active Catholic. She told of a time recently when she persuaded her husband to go to church with her.

"He never let go of my hand," she said. "He was squeezing it so hard I said, 'Hey, it's a little too tight here.'"

She said her husband quickly exited the church after the priest had given a sermon opposing capital punishment and asked people to pray for inmates living on death row in prisons.

"He was seriously crying," she said of her husband's reaction to the sermon. "I didn't understand, and I asked Jim, 'Why are you upset?'" She said Turner told her that the priest had failed to speak about the victims of the criminals awaiting execution.

Lawyers for Turner rested their case after the jury was sent home for the day. Judge Matthew Katz, who earlier in the day dismissed a request by Turner's lawyers for punitive damages, rejected a request by Cleary to dismiss the case.

The trial resumes today at 9 a.m.

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


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