|Jury to Begin Deliberations in Priest-Abuse Suit
Attorneys Say Order Put 'Wolf in Sheep's Clothing' in Classroom at Salesianum
By Sean O'Sullivan
November 24, 2009
WILMINGTON -- Attorneys for a man who claims he was molested by a priest at Salesianum School in 1962 told a Superior Court jury Monday that the school and the religious order that operates it "put a wolf in sheep's clothing" into a classroom.
Stephen and Thomas Neuberger's client James Sheehan, now 63, was 15 when the Rev. Francis L. Norris molested him, he alleges. Sheehan claims the school and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, which operates it, were "grossly negligent." Norris was a suicidal alcoholic who could not control his actions, his attorneys argued.
Norris, who died in 1985, had issues with depression and alcoholism, the Oblates' attorney, Colleen Shields, said, but those problems were irrelevant to the allegations of sexual abuse. She said that for as long as he lived, the school had no evidence that Norris abused students.
If Norris did what Sheehan alleges, Shields said, the priest's behavior was abhorrent and betrayed everything the school and the religious order stand for. "But this is not a forum for the accountability of Father Norris," she said, it is about the responsibility of Salesianum and the Oblates.
Sheehan's trial is the first for a lawsuit filed under Delaware's Child Victim's Act, a 2007 law that created a two-year window allowing claims of abuse to be brought even if the statute of limitations had expired. More than 175 lawsuits were filed before the window closed this summer.
The religious order is a separate entity from the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington and thus the suit was not affected by the diocese's filing for bankruptcy last month, which put many of the lawsuits on hold. Sheehan and the diocese reached a separate settlement, the terms of which they asked the bankruptcy court to keep confidential.
During his closing arguments, Thomas Neuberger said Norris caught Sheehan and several other boys playing basketball in Salesianum's gym without permission in April 1962. Norris, according to testimony, drove the other boys home but kept Sheehan in the car and started to fondle him.
Sheehan testified that he got out but ended up getting back in the car when Norris told him, "God has a message for you." Sheehan claims that Norris forced him to engage in mutual masturbation, then "stalked" him for two years.
While none of his personnel records state that Norris had problems with pedophilia, Thomas Neuberger argued the records contain "code words" he said were sometimes used in the 1950s and 1960s to imply sexual misbehavior, such as unspecified "health issues," "depression" and "alcoholism."
Sheehan, a star athlete who played football at the University of North Carolina, later taught and coached at Salesianum and sent his sons to school there.
Closing arguments ended Monday. If jurors, who return for deliberations today, find that the school or the religious order or both are liable, they will next determine whether compensatory and punitive damages should be awarded.
Before closing arguments Monday, Thomas Neuberger asked Judge Calvin L. Scott Jr. to ask jurors whether they had read Sunday's editions of The News Journal. Neuberger was concerned about a guest column written by attorney Michael Kelly that was highly critical of the Child Victim's Act and the millions of dollars in possible damages that Kelly wrote "will go directly into the lawyers' pockets." In a motion, Neuberger claimed the editorial was part of "a publicity campaign which borders on jury tampering" timed to coincide with the conclusion of Sheehan's civil case and the start of jury deliberations.
Kelly is on The News Journal's Community Advisory Board, whose members self-select topics for their Op-Ed columns, which are published quarterly. Sunday's publication date for Kelly's column was scheduled in August, two months before the diocese's decision to file for bankruptcy. The newspaper's editorial board, which is independent of the newsroom, supports the law that Kelly criticized.
Scott agreed to ask two questions of jurors on Monday -- inquiring if any had read any articles about Delaware's Child Victim's Act or clergy abuse in general. All shook their heads "no" and the trial proceeded.
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