No Punitive Damages in Church Abuse Case

Rutland Herald
November 30, 2007

BURLINGTON — Vermont's Roman Catholic Diocese confirmed Thursday that one of its priests sexually abused James Turner as a teenager 30 years ago. But that admission won't be enough for the 47-year-old Northeast Kingdom native to receive punitive damages in a trial under way in Chittenden Superior Court.

"The diocese has clearly conceded that Mr. Turner was abused," defense lawyer David Cleary said of Turner's civil lawsuit against the church. "We don't dispute the allegations."

But Judge Matthew Katz ruled that because the plaintiff can't prove the diocese knew the former Rev. Alfred Willis had a prior history of molesting children, the church shouldn't face expensive financial punishment.

A jury considering the case this week still can award Turner a yet unspecified amount of compensatory damages for losses caused by the abuse. But the judge's decision will spare Vermont's largest religious denomination what could have been a plaintiff's call for more than $1 million in additional punitive damages.

"This summary of evidence," Katz wrote on the fourth day of the trial, "suggests plaintiff may take his claim of negligent supervision to the jury. But does it support taking the demand for punitive damages to that jury?"

The judge noted the only early evidence of problems with Willis was a comment made sometime between 1972 and 1975 from the head of St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Md., who called the director of priest development for Vermont's Catholic Church to report a potential worry.

"There might be a problem with Alfred Willis in regard to alleged homosexual conduct," someone wrote later in church paperwork. "Investigation failed to reveal substance to this concern the vocation director judged it unnecessary to convey the matter to the bishop."

Turner says Willis — a priest in Burlington, Montpelier and Milton before being defrocked in 1985 — performed oral sex on him when he was 16 and sleeping at a Latham, N.Y., hotel in 1977. He faults the diocese for not doing something to prevent the abuse.

The judge will let the jury decide what if any responsibility the church has for the incident and whether Turner deserves compensatory damages. But in regard to additional punitive damages, Katz ruled:

"At the time this plaintiff was injured by Willis, there is no evidence that any person within the Diocese of Burlington had a subjective appreciation of the errant Willis' danger to young males. The 'red flags' from the St. Mary rector may have been that, but there is a substantial gap between knowledge of flags and subjective appreciation of a particular priest's actual danger."

But Turner's lawyers question what the diocese may have known but didn't save in records. On Thursday, they noted that Willis' current personnel files only held summaries of two secret church tribunals from 1981 and 1985 and didn't include any earlier paperwork.

Lawyer John Evers called diocesan Chancellor John McDermott to the witness stand.

Evers asked: "Those underlying documents no longer exist?"

McDermott replied: "Correct."

Evers then asked: "Those documents were destroyed by the diocese?"

McDermott explained that Vatican law requires a Catholic church to destroy all nonsummary documents regarding a priest following his death or 10 years after an action such as defrocking. McDermott's predecessor therefore purged Willis' file in 1995.

To show another possibility of earlier knowledge of problems, Turner's lawyers then called a 47-year-old North Carolina man who asked the press for anonymity but said he was an altar boy in Burlington in 1975. The man testified that Willis fondled him at a church youth sleepover two years before the plaintiff's abuse in 1977.

"I woke up sometime in the night to somebody who was touching me," the man said. "It was Al Willis. He was masturbating me."

Lawyer Jerome O'Neill asked what happened next.

"I froze," the man said. "I remember not moving, pressing my eyes closed."

The man said he didn't tell anyone after.

"I was scared. Embarrassed, scared."

But two decades later, in the mid 1990s, the man reported his abuse to the diocese.

"I'm an adult now," the man said as he dabbed tears from his eyes with a tissue. "I've got to stop this guy. He was known as 'Deacon Al, your bedtime pal.'"

O'Neill asked the man to explain that nickname.

The man replied: "To me, it meant there were other kids that it happened to and other kids who knew about it."

Turner's lawsuit, originally billed as the first priest misconduct case in years to reach a Vermont jury, now is said by the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests to be the first in the country to go to retrial.

Turner's lawyers spent much of Thursday offering witnesses who testified that the abuse has left the plaintiff, who suffers physical and mental symptoms of anxiety, in need of ongoing mental health therapy and antidepressants.

Turner is one of more than 30 recent accusers to take Vermont's Catholic Church to court. At least six previous accusers resolved similar civil lawsuits against the diocese by accepting a total of more than $1.5 million in settlement money before their cases went to trial. Lawyers for Turner and the diocese tried but failed to negotiate a settlement. As a result, his trial will continue Friday and perhaps Monday.

Contact Kevin O'Connor at


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