|Diocese Seeks to Pay Accused
Abuse Victims Ask Judge to Forbid Any Payments
By Maureen Milford
January 18, 2010
WILMINGTON (DE) -- When he was a Catholic priest in Delaware, Francis DeLuca molested boys after bingo games, on a trip to Italy and in the den of his living quarters, he said in an April 2009 deposition.
He admitted abusing so many boys in Delaware from 1962 to 1993 he couldn't remember all of them, according to court records.
The boys "liked it," he said, according to court documents. He didn't know it was a crime until he was arrested in 2006, he said.
After he was transferred to inactive ministry in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1993, DeLuca drove around in a car with the vanity tag "Uncle Frankie Wankie," court documents said.
More than a year after being stripped of his priestly status by Pope Benedict XVI, the 80-year-old DeLuca is destitute, the diocese and his lawyer say.
DeLuca, who is accused of abuse in 20 of the 132 lawsuits pending against the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, is living on $415 a month in Social Security, according to Stephen Casarino, his Wilmington attorney. That doesn't even cover his $500-a-month rent for an apartment. DeLuca feeds himself and pays his rent from his rapidly disappearing savings of less than $10,000, Casarino said. At Christmas, a few priests gave him gifts of money.
"He doesn't have much of a life," Casarino said.
When asked about his situation, DeLuca, who served in the diocese for 35 years, replied "No comment."
Now, the diocese, which was forced to file for bankruptcy in October under the weight of civil lawsuits alleging clergy sexual abuse by DeLuca and others, wants to pay about $10,000 a month in combined benefits to him and five others accused of abuse. The money would come from the diocese's bankruptcy estate or pool of assets.
Bankruptcy lawyers say it is the first time a diocese in bankruptcy has asked permission from a federal court to provide benefits to priests accused of sexual abuse.
In DeLuca's case, charity to the admitted abuser is a "corporal work of mercy," similar to feeding the hungry, the diocese says in court documents. Because such charity is the normal business of the church, the diocese is asking the court to let it provide $548 a month in medical benefits to DeLuca.
"Corporal works of mercy such as the provision of charity to Mr. DeLuca are fundamental to the Christian faith, and there is no 'bad person' exception to Catholic charity," the diocese contends.
Survivors of sexual abuse who serve on the unsecured creditors committee in the bankruptcy case, including victims of DeLuca, are not sympathetic. If there's a limited pool of resources to distribute, it should go to other, more worthy creditors, the committee contends.
The creditors are asking the judge to deny the diocese's motion to give benefits to DeLuca and five other priests who the diocese says it is obligated to pay under church law. James Stang, attorney for the unsecured creditors committee, said, "The law of the Vatican does not control the law of a federal bankruptcy court."
The diocese's motion has forced the creditors into a "very aggressive position," said James Holman, an abuse victim and co-chairman of the creditors committee.
"Of all the people who are deserving of diocesan charity, why are these people worthy to be put at the head of the line when there's been no progress in addressing the victim claim issues?" he asked.
The decision rests with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Sontchi, who on Tuesday scheduled a two-day hearing on the matter for February.
"They've put the judge on the horns of a dilemma," said Harvey Miller, a respected New York bankruptcy lawyer. "He's being asked to decide whether to extend Christian charity to a guy that helped cause the bankruptcy and harmed the parishioners. But on the other hand, the guy's 80 and destitute."
Thomas Salerno, a Phoenix lawyer and author of "The Executive Guide to Corporate Bankruptcy," called it "a very difficult choice" faced by Sontchi. "In all of these [diocesan] bankruptcies, it's a clash between canon law and civil law," said Salerno, who teaches at Pacific University's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Calif.
In a typical business bankruptcy, the parties negotiate it out, said Douglas Baird, a professor of bankruptcy law at the University of Chicago Law School. But in the case of clergy abuse, the victim creditors "are really, really angry."
"In this case it really is not just about the money," he said. "Judge Sontchi is in a tough spot."
Cristina Bicchieri, a professor of philosophy and legal studies at the University of Pennsylvania, called it "a terrible situation" that should have been hashed out between the parties before being brought before a judge.
"It seems to me strange that the diocese is trying to use this money for the [abuser priests] because it's a symbolic gesture. The fact that they give them money, even 5 cents, means the accused abusers were right," Bicchieri said.
The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, which has pastoral charge of more than 230,000 Roman Catholics in Delaware and on Maryland's Eastern Shore, sought protection in federal bankruptcy court in October just hours before the start of hearings in a personal injury lawsuit in Superior Court involving abuse by DeLuca.
The Wilmington diocese potentially was facing tens of millions of dollars in liability from lawsuits following the 2007 passage of the Delaware Child Victim's Act. Once the diocese filed for bankruptcy, the lawsuits were halted. While the filing was a painful decision, Chapter 11 offers the best opportunity for fair treatment of all sexual abuse victims of diocesan priests, Bishop W. Francis Malooly said in a statement.
Now the diocese is forcing a confrontation by asking to be allowed to provide benefits to retired or defrocked priests accused of sexual abuse, victims' advocates said.
"You start with a problem that was created by these people and as of today there's been no substantive proposal as to how the victims will be compensated. It's not appropriate to compensate the perpetrators when the true victims are lost in a world of bankruptcy litigation that's been forced on them," Holman said.
Besides the payment to DeLuca, the diocese wants to pay pensions to the Rev. James E. Richardson, the Rev. Douglas W. Dempster and the Rev. John A. Sarro, saying it has an obligation under canon law.
Richardson, who was accused in a lawsuit in June of sexual abuse at St. Matthew Parish near Newport, was temporarily suspended. But Richardson was restored to the ministry after an investigation concluded that the allegations against him were not credible, according to the diocese's motion. He receives a pension of approximately $2,208 a month. The lawsuit is pending.
Sarro and Dempster were identified by Bishop Michael Saltarelli as among the 18 diocesan priests against whom "there were admitted, corroborated or otherwise substantial allegations of abuse of minors." Proceedings to defrock Sarro and Dempster are pending before the Vatican.
Sarro, who lives at an assisted-living facility in Childs, Md., receives a pension of approximately $1,767 a month, the diocese says. There have been no abuse suits against the diocese related to Sarro. Abuse charges were related to his service in Southeast Asia.
Dempster receives pension benefits of approximately $1,767 a month. He is not accused in any of the lawsuits against the diocese, but the diocese settled a claim involving Dempster in 1993, according to legal documents. There is a lawsuit against him personally and St. John the Beloved Parish in Milltown, Immaculate Conception in Marydel, Md., St. Mary Refuge of Sinners in Cambridge, Md., and St. John-Holy Angels in Newark, said Tony Flynn, an attorney for the diocese.
The diocese also is asking to pay "sustenance" to the Rev. Joseph A. McGovern and the Rev. Charles W. Wiggins. They are retired, but don't receive pensions because they are not eligible, Flynn said. Both McGovern and Wiggins were identified by Saltarelli in 2006 and have been removed from public ministry. Proceedings to strip them of their priestly status are before the Vatican.
Both are accused of abuse in lawsuits against the diocese. McGovern's involves alleged abuse at St. John-Holy Angels, Flynn said. Wiggins is accused of abuse at St. Mark's High School in Milltown, he said.
The diocese gave McGovern cash sustenance of $496 in September. It also paid $548 in health insurance premiums. That month, the diocese paid Wiggins $2,100 and covered his health insurance premium.
Matter of conscience
Ultimately, Sontchi will have to balance the principles of what is fair and right, Miller said: "He's got to follow his conscience."
Salerno said it's not the function of bankruptcy court, which is a court of equity or fairness, to punish or "pass a sentence."
"In bankruptcy, there's a lot of vitriol going around at the beginning of the case," he said. "At end of the day, the bankruptcy judge's job is to keep the lid on things enough to reach an overall resolution that benefits as many people as possible."
To Bicchieri, the professor of philosophy, the money should come from some other Catholic charitable source, not the bankruptcy estate, because of its symbolic implications.
Miller said he recalled a case in bankruptcy that while not factually similar could apply to this case. After the judge made a decision, he said it was based on the proceeding "In re: Rachmones." The lawyers had never heard of the "Rachmones" proceedings and began diligently researching to find the citation. When they were stumped, they went back to judge to say they were unable to locate it.
The judge then informed them that "rachmones" is Yiddish for "pity."
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