BURLINGTON, Vt. - A man who blames the Diocese of Burlington for a priest's alleged molestation of him more than 30 years ago returned to court yesterday, five months after a judge declared a mistrial in his case.
James Turner, 47, of Virginia Beach, Va., sat quietly as lawyers delivered opening statements focusing on whether the diocese can be held accountable for the actions of now-defrocked Rev. Alfred Willis.
Willis, who was originally named in Turner's suit but settled out of court, is not on trial. The diocese is, for what Turner's lawyer told jurors yesterday was a pattern of protecting pedophile priests and covering up their crimes out of concern for church liability.
Turner says Willis molested him in a Latham, N.Y., hotel room in 1977 after the two joined with members of Turner's family for the ordination of Turner's older brother. According to Turner, Willis performed a sex act on him as he slept in the room, where six to eight people were also sleeping. Months later, Willis visited Turner's family in Derby and attempted the same thing but Turner rebuffed him, according to his lawsuit.
Last June, in Turner's case Judge Ben Joseph declared a mistrial over questioning by church lawyer David Cleary that violated a pretrial order.
The retrial, before a new judge and new jury, got underway yesterday with diocesan lawyer Thomas McCormick telling jurors the church had no notice of sexual misbehavior by Willis until 1978 and that it can't be held accountable for the incidents involving Turner, which allegedly happened in 1977.
He suggested that it was money that motivated Turner's claim.
Turner's lawyer, Jerome O'Neill, opened his presentation to the jury by outlining the cases of three other priests he said were coddled by the diocese despite multiple allegations of sexual abuse against children.
"Protecting children from sexual abuse is the right thing to do," O'Neill said. "Protecting diocese employees - particularly priests - who molest children is the wrong thing to do," he said.
O'Neill said that Turner - who has had two failed marriages and struggled with depression and anxiety, - traces his emotional problems to a lack of trust that he blames on his alleged molestation by Willis.
"The diocese acted with complete disregard to the lives of the children in its responsibility, specifically James Turner," O'Neill said.