Burlington Man Settles Abuse Case with Church

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press
April 7, 2004

SIS: PARISH MEMBERSHIP:The family of Robert Douglas II were members of the St. Ann Catholic Church parish in Milton in 1979 when Douglas, as a boy, was molested by former Catholic priest Alfred Willis. A front-page story in Wednesday's edition incorrectly identified the parish the family belonged to when the abuse took place.

The statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington has admitted it assigned a priest to a Milton parish in 1979 without telling anyone that he had previously molested boys while working at a parish in Burlington.

The admission was contained in an unusual three-page document filed this week in connection with a $170,000 settlement of a court case. The case was brought by Robert Douglas II of Burlington against the church and Alfred Willis, who is no longer a priest and lives in Leesburg, Va.

Douglas, who filed the case last April, alleged Willis molested him as a 13-year-old while he was attending St. Anthony's in the late 1970s. He said in an interview that he told his parents about the abuse at the time, but didn't recognize until three years ago how deep an impact it was having on his life.

As a condition of settling the case, Douglas demanded that the diocese admit it knew that Willis molested him and other children in Burlington and still sent him to Milton without telling the parish priest, the Rev. Phillip LaMothe, about Willis' prior conduct.

The document is notable because it marks the first time the diocese has publicly admitted it kept priest sexual abuse secret and shuffled an offending priest on to another parish, a claim made by other victims of priest sex abuse in Vermont.

'I needed to get this story out, no ifs ands or buts," Douglas said. 'I had to let people know how they passed him around."

The Rev. Wendell Searles, vicar general for the diocese, said the settlement was another step taken by the diocese to put long-ago sexual abuse claims to rest. 'Obviously, these are a great challenge to us," he said.

Willis' lawyer, John Gravel, did not sign the document and declined comment on the case. 'My client has instructed me he does not wish to make a statement at this time," Gravel said.

According to the document, then-Bishop John Marshall received allegations in early 1978 that Willis was sexually involved with boys while at St. Anthony's parish in the South End of Burlington and continued to see some of the boys while serving at St. Augustine Church in Montpelier.

Marshall responded by ordering Willis to obtain counseling and visit with the parents of the children he had molested. Then, in 1979, Marshall assigned Willis to St. Ann Church in Milton to serve as an assistant pastor under LaMothe.

'The Bishop did not advise the pastor at St. Ann's Parish of the prior incidents involving Willis," the document stated.

In 1980, several St. Ann's parishioners approached LaMothe with allegations that Willis had molested their sons and told him they had learned that Willis also had molested boys while at St. Anthony's in Burlington. LaMothe, in turn, relayed the allegations to Marshall.

'It was at that time that Bishop Marshall then advised the pastor at St. Ann's Parish regarding information he had received from certain of the parents at St. Anthony's parish in 1978."

The St. Ann's parents also approached then-Chittenden County State's Attorney Mark Keller with their claims. Keller began an investigation and met with Marshall but chose not to prosecute Willis, the document said.

'I vaguely remember I had a case," said Keller, now a District Court judge. 'As to what I did and why I did it, I can't tell you. Too many cases, too many years ago."

The diocese pulled Willis from St. Ann's after the 1980 allegations surfaced and, according to the document, suspended him from further priestly activities. In 1981, Willis attended a New Mexico treatment center for problem priests.

An internal church investigation later deemed him guilty of sexual conduct with minors, and Willis' clerical status was revoked in 1985.

'When it became clear what had happened, the church took decisive action," Searles said.

Box: Priest scandal

According to the state Attorney General's Office, 31 people were allegedly victims of sexual misconduct by 25 Catholic priests over several decades. With the Douglas settlement, the church will have paid out more than $570,000 to victims and spent an undisclosed sum on legal fees.


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