Navy Doctor Wins Default Judgment in Del. against Accused Priest
Associated Press, carried in Boston Herald [Wilmington DE]
January 30, 2007
A federal judge on Tuesday entered a default judgment against a priest accused of molesting a former Catholic school student.
U.S. District Court Judge Sue Robinson granted the judgment against the Rev. Edward J. Smith after he failed to respond to a lawsuit filed by Navy Commander Kenneth Whitwell.
Whitwell's attorney, Thomas Neuberger, said the judgment marks the first time that a priest has been found liable in Delaware for child sexual abuse.
Robinson scheduled a jury trial for late March to determine damages.
Whitwell, 38, said he was grateful that he and his family will have the opportunity to tell a jury what happened to him.
"Finally, a victim in Delaware gets to have their day in court, and gets to tell their story publicly," said Whitwell, a Navy optometrist stationed at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.
Robinson granted the default judgment after Neuberger recounted the steps his law firm took in serving Smith with the complaint, including agreeing to a request by Smith's attorney to extend the deadline for a response.
Telephone messages left for Smith, who now works at a Norbertine Order priory in Middletown, and the attorney, Thomas Bergstrom of Philadelphia, were not immediately returned Tuesday.
Robinson said it was evident that Smith had no intention of responding to the lawsuit.
"Certainly your record is clear," she told Neuberger. "Your motion for default judgment is granted."
Last year, Robinson dismissed the school, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, and Bishop Michael Saltarelli as defendants in the lawsuit. Neuberger said he will appeal that ruling after Whitwell's case against Smith is resolved.
In a 2005 lawsuit, Whitwell claimed that he was sexually abused by Smith for several years while attending Archmere Academy, a Catholic high school in Claymont, and that church officials did nothing to protect him. While alleging years of abuse in Delaware, Whitwell's lawsuit focuses on two weekend ski trips to Vermont in 1984 and 1985, during which he claims Smith abused him. The lawsuit was based on the Vermont trips because that state's statute of limitations is more favorable than Delaware's to victims of childhood sex crimes.
Whitwell alleged that Smith began molesting him in 1982, when he was a 14-year-old freshman and Smith was his religion teacher.
According to the lawsuit, Smith had been removed from his job as principal at St. John Neumann High School in Philadelphia two years earlier amid allegations of sexually abusing children and was "hidden" by church officials in Maryland before being transferred to Delaware.
Whitwell said he repressed memories of the abuse for years until 2003, when it surfaced unexpectedly during a heated argument with his wife. After undergoing therapy, he traveled to Delaware to confront church officials, including Smith.
Whitwell described Smith's apology as "hollow and too late," and that his refusal to respond to the lawsuit is evidence of the priest's "arrogance."
"He believes that he can't be touched, and it's an indication that they think they're above the law," he said.
Neuberger said Smith, the son of a successful businessman, is independently wealthy, and that the family has tried to shield its assets. He also noted that Smith served as treasurer for the Norbertine Order.
"We will search worldwide for his assets," Neuberger vowed. "... He's a very sophisticated person financially. He knows how to hide money."
Whitwell said his motive in filing the lawsuit was not damages, but justice against Smith and the "enablers" within the church who protected him.
"I will do what it takes to get to the endpoint," he said.
After the lawsuit was filed, Archmere officials acknowledged that a complaint involving alleged sexual misconduct by Smith at the Neumann school was reported to the priory in 2002, and that Smith subsequently was banned from the Archmere campus.
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