Archmere Grad Gets $41 Million in Abuse Suit
Damages Thought to Be First in Del. Priest Sex Case
By Beth Miller
March 31, 2007
Wilmington — A U.S. District Court jury Friday awarded $41 million in damages to an Archmere Academy graduate who testified he was sexually abused hundreds of times by a faculty priest at the prestigious Catholic school.
The jury award — which includes $6 million in compensatory damages and $35 million in punitive damages — is believed to be the first made to a victim of child sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Delaware. The only defendant in the case was the Rev. Edward J. Smith; the school, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington and Smith's Norbertine order were dismissed from the suit months ago.
Navy Cmdr. Kenneth J. Whitwell, 39, of Stafford, Va., a 1986 graduate of Archmere, told jurors Thursday that he was orally and anally raped by Smith, a Norbertine priest, more than 230 times over the course of 33 months. The abuse started, Whitwell said, when he was a 14-year-old freshman at the school.
Smith, who now lives at the Norbertine priory in Middletown, was not present in court and offered no defense to the civil lawsuit. Neither he nor the superior of the Norbertine order, the Rev. James Bagnato, returned phone messages Friday.
Whitwell covered his face in his hands and wiped tears away when the final verdict was read Friday. After court was dismissed, he turned and embraced his wife, Amy, and they wept together.
"The jury spoke out very loudly that all Delaware officials must do everything in their power to hold these persons accountable for their past crimes," Whitwell said at a news conference later. "I want to thank the judge and jury for allowing me to expose the truth about matters which have been hidden away for far too long, and for seeing that justice was done not only for me, but also for all the many other victims who have been denied their day in court by armies of lawyers and church bureaucrats who are more interested in a cover-up than in protecting innocent children and revealing the truth of what happens behind closed doors in their church."
Following the money
In testimony Thursday, Whitwell and his mother, Joyce Casey, testified that Smith had told them of a large inheritance that his father had protected for him so that church officials would have no claim on his riches. They testified that Smith provided many costly gifts, always had large amounts of cash on him, tried to give Whitwell a car for his 16th birthday and offered to pay the boy's tuition at Archmere if financial needs overwhelmed the family.
"We expect we will collect every penny that he has hidden away," said Thomas Neuberger, who with his son, Stephen, represented Whitwell and has several other such cases pending in Delaware courts. "And after our appeal, when we succeed in taking Archmere and the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington back into the case, we expect a similar award when we retry the case."
One legal expert doubted Whitwell will see the full amount. If there is no insurance or property that can be leveraged to pay the award, defendants in this type of case can either appeal the award or declare bankruptcy.
"In my experience, unless there's insurance coverage, an award like this probably would never be paid to the plaintiff," said Joe Weik, past president of the Delaware Trial Lawyers Association. Weik said Smith's absence could have contributed to the size of the jury's award.
Statute of limitations
The suit was filed in federal court to leverage the Vermont statute of limitations, which allows plaintiffs six years after they discover the cause of their injury to file suit in sexual-abuse cases. Delaware's civil statute, now under review in the General Assembly, is two years.
Whitwell testified that Smith abused him on two separate ski trips to Killington, Vt. Whitwell said his memory of the abuse was triggered during an argument with his wife in 2000, and he did not link his personal problems with the abuse until he was under treatment with a Navy psychiatrist in 2003.
Chief Judge Sue L. Robinson had dismissed Archmere, the diocese and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli from the suit, saying they had no part in the Vermont matter and that the Delaware statute would apply in their cases.
Archmere school officials issued a statement late Friday: "Archmere hopes that the trial and the jury's verdict lend some measure of comfort to Kenneth Whitwell and his family, as well as sending a clear message that sexual abuse of any child can never be tolerated."
Long-term impact of abuse
Jurors heard expert opinion Friday from Dr. Carol Tavani, a neuropsychiatrist, who said Whitwell was permanently injured by the abuse and would need intensive treatment to have a chance at improving the quality of his life and marriage.
"These things leave scars — they're pervasive," Tavani told the jury. "It's not that they [victims] don't go on to have a life, but it colors the way you look at the world. ... It affects your relationships, especially your close relationships, and affects your ability to trust anybody."
Tavani, who does more than 2,000 consultations a year at Christiana and Riverside hospitals and founded the Psychiatric Consultation Service 25 years ago, said Whitwell's problems with anxiety, mood disorders, fears, nightmares, severe stress levels, and personal intimacy were caused by the abuse.
Tom Neuberger urged the jury to provide justice for Whitwell and protection for children of other predators with a "colossal" award.
He acknowledged the difficulty of placing a dollar value on the damage done by sexual abuse that Whitwell estimated happened 234 times, a "conservative" guess. "What is one sodomization of a 14-year-old worth? Your mind recoils at it," Neuberger said, "but it's your duty to face it. Two hundred thirty four separate horrible wrongs."
Worse, Neuberger said, Smith explained his behavior to Whitwell in spiritual terms, saying such activity was a natural way of expressing God's love.
'They'll take notice'
Neuberger urged jurors to send an especially strong message in punitive damages: "Without a colossal award, the Smiths and enablers, who blow you off when you confront them — the Norbertines and Archmeres of the world — won't take notice. Make the award enormous enough that they'll take notice."
Whitwell testified Thursday that he was sexually abused by Smith in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Vermont. He also testified that other priests from the school, the headmaster and dean of students saw him emerge from Smith's bedroom at the Archmere priests' residence but neither challenged the behavior nor warned his mother of any concern. Whitwell said he drank with priests during happy hours at the residence.
Smith was on the Archmere faculty from 1982-84 and banned from the school's campus in 2002, officials say, when allegations of abuse at a Philadelphia school were reported by the news media.
Whitwell said pursuing the suit was "the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my entire life." And, he said, it is not over. "I quietly and fairly asked for justice from those who enabled these crimes, but I was ignored and belittled," Whitwell said. "So I will march on until all the wrongs done to me and countless others are made right. It is a glorious day when the American justice system works, a glorious day when a wrong can be righted."
Contact Beth Miller at 324-2784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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