Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Church abuse case ends in a mistrial

A judge declared a mistrial Monday in the first of a recent series of priest sexual misconduct cases to reach a Vermont jury.

Chittenden Superior Court Judge Ben Joseph stunned a full courtroom gathered to hear the fourth day of testimony in a civil lawsuit brought by James Turner against the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

Turner, a 46-year-old Northeast Kingdom native, tearfully testified Monday that the former Rev. Alfred Willis performed oral sex on him when he was 16 and staying at a Latham, N.Y., hotel the night Turner's brother, Bernard, became a deacon in 1977.

In pretrial paperwork, the judge had ruled that the diocese couldn't tell the jury about a reported sexual affair between Willis — a priest in Burlington, Montpelier and Milton before being defrocked in 1985 — and Turner's brother, noting "Defense's questions about this subject are barred as being irrelevant to the case before the court."

But that didn't stop diocesan lawyer David Cleary from repeatedly asking Turner to describe the relationship between the two men. Turner's lawyers objected before calling for a mistrial.

At 1:43 p.m., the judge agreed."I think there was a clear violation," Joseph said. "It is my obligation to see things are conducted according to the rules. We're back to the very beginning."

As Turner fled to a side room to sob in the arms of his wife, lawyers on both sides expressed outrage.

Cleary said he wasn't exposing the sexual affair but simply asking Turner a question about the two men.

"I think it was unfounded, unfair and precipitous," the church lawyer said of the judge's call for mistrial. "I think as counsel I followed his instructions explicitly."

But Cleary acknowledged the diocese has disagreed with many of the judge's past rulings, having gone so far as to ask the state to bar Joseph from presiding over its cases.

"Perhaps now on retrial we will have a different judge with a different perspective," Cleary said.
"We certainly welcome that."

Lawyer Jerome O'Neill, speaking for Turner, blasted Cleary and said he would sue the diocese to recoup his client's trial costs.

"I have never seen anyone so explicitly violate the order of the court," O'Neill said. "The diocese could care less about these victims. What we see here is a horrid tragedy. The only message this diocese will listen to is from a jury that holds it accountable for past and present misconduct."

Turner's lawyer anticipated it could take months for his client's case, filed three years ago, to come back before a judge.

Chittenden Superior Court is jug-gling 24 other civil misconduct lawsuits against the Vermont Catholic Church and eight of its retired or deceased priests.

Turner, now living in Virginia Beach, Va., was asking the jury for damages of more than $1 million. The diocese, in response, argued it wasn't liable because the allegations, if proven true, resulted from an out-of-state family event and not a Vermont church function.

On the witness stand Monday, Turner recalled the night in June 1977 he alleges Willis abused him while the two were staying in a roomful of family and friends at the Latham, N.Y., Holiday Inn.

"Sometime during the morning I was awakened by Father Willis," he began.

Turner paused in his testimony."Performing oral sex on me," he mumbled in almost a whisper.

"I told him to stop. He told me to relax and enjoy it."

Turner paused again.

"The next thing I remember was waking up. I just felt so dirty, filthy. I took a shower, a long shower."

Another of Turner's lawyers, John Evers, asked if that helped."No," the plaintiff said.

Evers then asked if Turner immediately told anyone of the incident.

"There was no way anyone was going to believe that happened to me," the plaintiff replied.

"Here's this man who's a priest. He was a friend of the family. I'm a 16-year-old kid trying to understand what happened. I just felt there was no way anyone was going to believe me."

Turner said he next saw Willis some six months later at the end of 1977, when the priest, while staying at the teenager's home in Derby, woke and tried to abuse him again.

"I told him to stop. He told me again something like I was going to enjoy it. I got angry. I jumped up. I got Mr. Willis up on the wall. I pulled back because I was going to punch him. I realized if I did anything more, I was going to wake up my parents."

And so Turner said he left his bedroom and slept on the sofa.

He said he last saw Willis when the priest returned to the family's home a few months later.

"He handed me a gray sweatshirt and a basketball. I said, 'Thank you.' I went in my room and shut the door."

Turner said he never wore the sweatshirt.

As for the basketball: "The next day I popped it."

Willis, now 62 and living in Leesburg, Va., has denied the charges but has settled with Turner for an undisclosed "minimal" sum, lawyers said.

Turner's appearance Monday drew supporters including Robert Douglas II, who settled his own child abuse lawsuit against Willis in 2004 for $20,000 and related charges against the diocese for $150,000.

Turner testified that he had suffered two failed marriages and a string of job losses because of psychological problems related to the abuse. He said, because of continuing counseling, he had met his current wife exactly two years ago Monday and had married her exactly a year ago the same day.

"This is another milestone for me to get past," he said on the witness stand. "To let people know and make the diocese accountable for what they allowed to happen to me."

After the mistrial, Turner said: "This is just another example of them continuing to revictimize me."

The diocese has spent more than $1.5 million to settle at least six priest misconduct cases out of court since news of a national sex abuse scandal hit the Catholic Church five years ago.

Officials stress they aren't paying settlements with regular collection money or the diocesan Bishop's Fund but from loans and other sources.

As a result, the diocese reported a deficit of $1.3 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2006.

Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano, who attended the entire trial, listened Monday as Turner's lawyers lashed out to newspaper and television reporters.

"This whole thing is extremely painful," Matano said. "It's certainly not the work of the church to inflict pain on others."

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