Thursday, June 21, 2007

Vermont Abuse Trial Begins

In the following court case of a former priest accused of abusing a boy I have a specific interest. Fr. Al Willis was a priest assigned to my parish where I lived in Milton, Vermont. Fr. Willis was goodlooking, dynamic, popular, slick and kept himself very busy. He started a sign language course because he had a "special ministry" to the deaf. I took the course along with most of the teenagers in the parish and some of their parents. Two things that stand out to me- 1. There was a particular teenage boy who took the class with his parents. He was the only one that didn't "pass" the course. He was not allowed to attend the final party. Looking back now it is fairly obvious what was going on. I believe he probably rebuffed Fr. Willis' advances. Sadly his parents attended the party- I guess in the belief that the pass/fail was legitimate.

The other vivid memory was when Fr. Willis brought a young, very handsome deaf boy to class. My girlfriends and I made fools of ourselves I am sure. Much to the embarassment of this poor boy and the delight of Fr. Willis. The whole thing was so sick.

Finally there were enough complaints that finally reached the Bishop and Fr. Willis was spirited away literally in the dead of night and never seen again. Another of my friends won a judgment against Fr. Willis two years ago.

The attorney representing the Diocese is also someone I know- Tom McCormack. Tom is a Catholic father of 5 children. Most of whom I think are adopted. It's hard for me to understand wanting to defend the Diocese against these cases. The evidence is overwhelming and that is only what is known.

I'm also puzzled by the neocons who react so angrily to the victims of these lawsuits. They doubt their stories, they do not want to see them prevail in court and they are more than ready to blame these troubled, damaged victims for problematic lives and decisions they have made post abuse. I mean we are talking about victims, some of whom have killed themselves. And what do the neocons say? Well, obviously that person was unstable and their story cannot be trusted. Child predators pick out the troubled, lonely, and easily manipulated children to abuse knowing that few will believe them.

And it wasn't the case that the hierarchy didn't know what was going on. I think the courts have released enough documentation that we can put that nonsense to rest. I say pay the victims what they are entitled to and without putting them through hell. A second time.

The Rutland Herald

Opening arguments in abuse case

June 21, 2007

By KEVIN O'CONNOR Herald Staff

BURLINGTON — The plaintiff says it's about priest sexual misconduct. The defendant says it's about an accuser's desire to collect more than $1 million.

James Turner and the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington told conflicting stories Wednesday in Chittenden Superior Court at the start of the first recent abuse trial of its kind to reach a Vermont jury.

Turner, 46, of Virginia Beach, Va., says the former Rev. Alfred Willis — a priest in Burlington, Montpelier and Milton before being defrocked in 1985 — performed oral sex on him when he was 16 and staying at a Latham, N.Y., hotel in 1977 and tried to molest him again at the teenager's Derby home later that year.

Turner's lawyer, Jerome O'Neill of Burlington, charged Wednesday that the diocese knew Willis and at least three other priests dating back to 1963 had questionable sexual histories but were assigned to Vermont churches where they molested school-age boys.

"This diocese knew there were sexual issues regarding Willis but nonetheless ordained him," O'Neill said in his opening arguments. "It permitted these priests to retain the Roman collar — the trademark of trust. It chose to do nothing to protect the children."

For his first witness, O'Neill called the Rev. Wendell Searles, the former second-in-command at the diocese, and asked him to read aloud a series of confidential church letters reporting decades of problems with Vermont clergy.

The 78-year-old Searles spent almost four hours uttering such words as "genitals," "fondling," "masturbation," "molestation" and "pedophilia," and phrases including "took a child into his bed," "his behavior has been concurrent and compulsive" and "we might be faced with a civil suit."

In the most flagrant example, Searles had to read one internal letter whose subjects were identified only by their initials that said, "The fathers went from tent to tent and performed oral sex on the boys." One of those students was so upset, the letter continued, "he flunked that year in school."

In response, diocesan lawyer Thomas McCormick objected to the charges against priests other than Willis.

"That's not the Turner case," he said repeatedly.

According to the church attorney, the rector of Willis' seminary communicated concerns about the priest to the diocese's director of vocations "but later said upon investigation there was no need for concern."

"The diocese was unaware of Alfred Willis' propensities at the time Mr. Turner says he was abused."

McCormick said that even if the abuse took place, "this was not a diocesan function, this was a family function," and he believed the statute of limitations on prosecuting the case has passed. He told the jury of six men and six women: "The decision for you will be for whether the diocese today should be paying significant damages based on something Mr. Turner said happened 30 years ago at a family function."

McCormick also questioned the plaintiff's memory and motivation. He asked how Willis could have abused Turner in a hotel room where as many as eight people, including the priest's mother and the teenager's brother (a deacon at the time), were said to be sleeping.

According to McCormick, Turner's ex-girlfriend will testify during the trial that "they talked about how they could get a Mustang with the money they could get."

Turner will ask the jury for "a very large amount of money — well into seven figures," O'Neill confirmed. But the plaintiff's attorney said the sum would pay for therapy and living expenses for a former Vermonter who has suffered from post-traumatic stress, crying breakdowns, two failed marriages and several job shifts.

"He has difficulty with employers, he has difficulty with relationships," O'Neill said. "This will haunt him the rest of his life. Jim will need help for the rest of his life."

Willis, now 62 and living in Leesburg, Va., has told the court in a letter that "the claims against me are extremely upsetting and ... to the best of my memory, unfounded," but has settled with Turner for an undisclosed yet reportedly minimal sum of money.

The defrocked priest isn't attending the trial. But Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano, wearing a simple black suit and a white clerical collar, sat silently at the defendant's table Wednesday and declined comment otherwise.

The trial, which already has sparked extensive press coverage in Vermont and Virginia, promises to muddy the reputations of both the plaintiff and defendant.

Turner, his lawyer acknowledged, was once a "hypersexualized" man who filed for bankruptcy and didn't disclose all his past relationships when asked during preliminary proceedings.

The diocese faces charges it regularly reassigned priests while covering up their problems, paid off accusers for secrecy and, in 1981, pressured the Chittenden County State's Attorney's office into not prosecuting Willis.

And Willis was labeled "a pathological liar, a consummate actor and a psychopath," said O'Neill, reading from a 1983 letter written by John Marshall, the Vermont Catholic bishop from 1972 to 1992, who died in 1994.

Turner, who sat in court with his wife, will testify later in the trial. He will be the first of more than 30 recent accusers to tell their story to a jury, having tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement with the church.

At least six previous accusers resolved similar civil lawsuits against the diocese for a total of more than $1.5 million in settlements before their cases went to trial. In addition, Vermont's largest religious denomination faces 24 other misconduct cases against eight retired priests. One priest lost a case in 1989 in which a jury awarded his accuser $162,500.

Contact Kevin O'Connor at

1 comment:

bill bannon said...

There are two parts to the scandal: the perpetrating priests and the response of superiors after seeing problems. The second part is actually more demoralizing
because it is sin coming from normal people and leaders not from sex fiends like the perpetrating priests.
There is another dichotomy though as to the victims: small children versus teenagers. In the case of the former victims, I'd like to see the priests go to prison for a long time and in every case. But with the teens, I can see how the Church defends against their lawsuits...because teens if they are late teens especially can commit sexual sins
( I attended a Jesuit high school where one heterosexual male who later went to a very good college, told me of having done sexual acts with a homosexual for money pure and simply as the motivation). While US law may see late teens as total victims in these situations, Catholic moral theology would ask why they are not seen as complicit expecially in cases where they repeatedly return to the same situations that enable the priest.
Even here though it varies. One sixteen year old could be very vulnerable and lonely and his cooperation could be based on that but another 16 year old could be an aggressive homosexual who simply wanted those sins. The financial payouts should vary and sometimes disappear with such circumstances though I doubt that they do.