Mistrial Declared in Va. Man’s Sex Abuse Claim Against Vt. Diocese

June 28, 2007

A mistrial was declared this week in the case of a Virginia man who accused the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vermont of negligence for the alleged actions of one of its priests.

Chittenden County Superior Court Judge Ben Joseph declared the mistrial Monday at the request of lawyers for James Turner, 46, of Virginia Beach, Va., saying Diocesan lawyer David Cleary violated a pretrial ruling.

Turner sued former Alfred Willis and the Diocese over a 1977 incident in which he said the former priest performed a sex act and attempted again another time. Willis settled out of court and was removed as a defendant in the case.

The sudden end one week into the trial came as a result of a series of questions by Cleary, who cross-examined Turner about the relationship between the victim’s brother, Bernard Turner, and Willis.

Joseph said Cleary violated a pretrial ruling dealing with limits on questions that could be asked about the nature of the relationship. Turner’s lawyers had moved for the mistrial, saying the questions put to Turner denied them a fair trial.

Turner, formerly of Derby, wept in court when Joseph announced the decision. Both sides said they were disappointed.

“I think it was unfounded, unfair and precipitous,” Cleary said.

Diocesan lawyers had been unhappy with Joseph’s pretrial rulings in the case, including a June 14 ruling that allowed Turner’s lawyers to bring up the diocese’s handling of other sex abuse cases that the diocese contends are unrelated to the Turner complaint.

In his opening statement to jurors last week, diocesan attorney Thomas McCormick repeatedly told them that whatever they heard about the diocese and other claims during testimony, they should remember they were being asked only to decide the case involving Turner and Willis.

“We will have a different judge, with a different perspective on the case,” Cleary said outside court, referring to a retrial.

Jerome O’Neill, one of Turner’s lawyers, said he never saw such a blatant violation of a pretrial ruling. He said he would seek to have the diocese found liable for the attorneys’ fees and expenses incurred by Turner.

In his suit, Turner said Willis — who has since been defrocked — molested him as they slept with several other people in a Latham, N.Y., hotel room after attending an ordination ceremony for Bernard Turner.

James Turner was 16 at the time.

About six months later, Willis tried to do it again while visiting Turner’s family home in Derby, according to the suit. Turner didn’t tell the diocese until 2002, when he called and then wrote a letter describing the incidents, saying he wanted the diocese to provide the financial backing for him to receive treatment for the emotional damage he sustained.

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