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Spotlight Report

Vt. diocese in record settlement over abuse

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff, 4/7/2004

The Roman Catholic Church in Vermont has agreed to a record settlement in a clergy sexual abuse lawsuit, while acknowledging that the priest involved was transferred to a new parish despite recurring allegations of sexual misconduct with minors.

The admission that diocesan officials transferred the Rev. Alfred Willis without telling his new pastor about the sexual abuse allegations was required as part of a $170,000 settlement with Robert Douglas, 38, of Burlington, Vt. The settlement is the highest paid in a clergy sex abuse case in Vermont.

Douglas sued the Burlington Diocese last April, alleging that Willis had sexually abused him at St. Ann's Parish in Milton, Vt., in 1979 when Douglas was 13. Bishop John Marshall had transferred Willis from St. Augustine's Parish in Montpelier, despite allegations that the priest had engaged in sexual misconduct with boys during his time at that parish and in a previous assignment at St. Anthony's Parish in Burlington.

Douglas said he would not have agreed to the settlement without the admission about the transfer by the church, which will pay $150,000 of the settlement. Willis, who will pay the remaining $20,000, was found guilty in 1981 of sexual offenses with minors by a secret canonical tribunal, removed from active ministry, and defrocked in 1985.

"I wanted the public to learn the truth about what happened to me and other children," Douglas said yesterday. "I also wanted to make public what the diocese chose to do that enabled Alfred Willis to abuse me and other children in Milton."

The 125,000-member diocese, the state's largest religious denomination, was hit by a flurry of allegations after the sex-abuse scandal rocked the Boston Archdiocese in 2002. In that year, the Burlington Diocese forwarded to the state attorney general the files of 21 priests with possible sexual-abuse problems, including six active clergy members. In addition to those cases, the attorney general's office received more than a dozen allegations of clergy sex abuse from other sources.

Jerome O'Neill, a Burlington lawyer who represents Douglas, said the settlement negotiations were difficult. Last year, O'Neill criticized the diocese for failing to meet court deadlines to produce records on abusive priests.

Church officials, who could not be reached for comment late yesterday, have defended their response to the allegations as thorough and timely.

According to the settlement statement, Willis was investigated for sexual misconduct while a seminarian in Baltimore. The allegation was not found to be substantive. Information about the case was not forwarded to the Burlington Diocese, where Willis received his first assignment.

In February 1978, the diocese received allegations of sexual misconduct dating from Willis's assignment at St. Anthony's in Burlington. The complaints alleged that Willis continued to have sexual contact with boys from St. Anthony's during his subsequent posting at St. Augustine's.

Willis denied the allegations when confronted by Bishop Marshall, the settlement statement said. The bishop ordered Willis to undergo psychological counseling and to meet with the parents of the boys to explain his behavior.

In June 1979, Willis was transferred to Milton.

"The diocese had knowledge of serious allegations of sexual misconduct and didn't do much about it," O'Neill said. No warnings were given to the St. Ann's pastor, who did not know about the previous allegations until parents from St. Ann's said that their children had complained of abuse by Willis and that they had learned about earlier complaints in Burlington.

When the pastor approached Marshall with the allegations, he was told for the first time about the alleged offenses in Burlington, the church statement said.

"For Rob, this is a lifting of a huge burden off his shoulders," O'Neill said. "The diocese can't say it didn't happen."

The effect of the abuse has haunted him in recent years, Douglas said. "When all of the publicity arose about priest abuse of children, I tried to deal with my past history," he said. "I found myself experiencing severe depression, insomnia, night terror, major anxiety, and social anxiety."

Douglas said his parents, whom he told about Willis's conduct, kept the church's response a secret until the past few years.

"My family felt that it had to keep these events a secret, and that is how I grew up," he said.

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