Judge Rules Vt. Statute of Limitations Not a Defense for Diocese

January 7, 2008

A Superior Court judge has overturned a jury ruling that Vermont’s Roman Catholic Diocese isn’t liable for a pedophile priest because a victim’s lawsuit was filed after the statute of limitations had expired.

The ruling by Judge Matthew Katz could mean the diocese will have to pay $15,000 to James Turner, 47, who claimed the church failed to protect him from the actions of the former Rev. Alfred Willis.

Last month a jury found that the Diocese failed to supervise adequately the now-defrocked Willis and awarded Turner the compensatory damages. But the jury also found that under the statute of limitations, Turner should have brought the claim by 1998.

Vermont law gives an accuser up to six years to file suit after they realize the caused personal harm. During the trial attorneys for the diocese told the jury that Turner had spoken to family members about his concerns long before he filed suit.

“Knowing a priest breached a duty does not, per se, tip off the reasonable person that the diocese has also breached a duty,” Katz wrote. “This defense of statute of limitation should not have been submitted to the jury.”

Turner, 47, of Virginia Beach, Va., claimed Willis performed a sex act on him and attempted to do it again months later in a visit to his family’s home. The former Derby man sued the church in 2004 saying it failed to protect him from Willis.

Turner’s attorney said Katz’s ruling could prevent the diocese from making similar arguments in 24 similar lawsuits that are pending.

“This is a very important ruling from our point of view,” said attorney Jerome O’Neill. “Assuming other judges apply the same analysis, the statutes of limitations as a defense to the diocese as a practical matter is gone.”

Church attorney Thomas McCormick didn’t want to comment on Katz’s ruling.

“We haven’t decided what we’re going to do,” McCormick said.

The next abuse trial against the diocese is due to begin next month.

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