|Jury Awards Punitive Damages in Priest Abuse Case
December 8, 2010
A Superior Court jury on Wednesday assessed punitive damages of $1 against a Roman Catholic parish in Wilmington in a priest child sex abuse case after witnesses testified that a big award could devastate the church community.
While assessing only token damages against St. Elizabeth's parish, the jury returned a punitive damage award of $30 million against former priest Francis DeLuca, equal to the $30 million in compensatory damages it awarded abuse victim John Vai last week.
The jury last week found that St. Elizabeth's was negligent in not preventing DeLuca from sexually abusing Vai in the 1960s. It ordered that the parish pay $3 million of the compensatory damage award.
On Wednesday, the jury determined that St. Elizabeth's also showed reckless disregard in not preventing DeLuca from abusing Vai and other boys, but it awarded only token punitive damages.
Vai nevertheless said he was satisfied, and that his intent in seeking punitive damages was not to cause financial harm to the parish, but to send a message.
"I felt that it was important that a message be sent that you can't have your head in the sand when it comes to kids," Vai said. "The message got across."
Defense attorney Colleen Shields said the parish was disappointed that its current members were being held accountable for mistakes of the past, but grateful that it was spared from a further substantial damage award.
The verdict came after leaders of the parish schools urged the jury not to award punitive damages.
Shirley Bounds, principal of St. Elizabeth's high school, testified that the parish is "a very different place" than it was when DeLuca, a convicted pedophile, preyed on Vai and other young boys.
Bounds said last week's verdict was devastating, and that staff and student families were concerned that the school might close, particularly if the jury awarded punitive damages.
"My kids would have no place to be," she said. "My faculty would have no place to go."
Mary Jean Quill, assistant principal of the elementary school, said punitive damages would be the "death" of the parish.
"You have the fate of an entire community in your hands," she told the jury. "We've been punished enough already. Please let us continue our ministry."
One of Quill's own brothers, Robert Quill, was a classmate of Vai and also a victim of DeLuca. Quill was the first person to file a lawsuit alleging priest sex abuse under a 2007 Delaware law that provided a two-year window authorizing lawsuits that otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations. The Diocese of Wilmington, which oversees St. Elizabeth's schools, settled Quill's federal lawsuit in 2008.
The Associated Press typically does not name alleged victims of sexual abuse, but Quill and Vai have spoken publicly about the allegations.
Despite fears of school students having nowhere to go, Thomas Neuberger, an attorney for Vai, noted that the diocese has closed or merged several schools in recent years. He also noted that while St. Elizabeth's contends it is much more vigilant about protecting children, a former pastor often allowed DeLuca, who lives in New York, to stay at the rectory during his visits to Delaware, and even to preside over a funeral at St. Elizabeth's in 2006, after he had been removed from priestly duties for abusing children.
"It was bad judgment," admitted Bounds, who said she was not told about DeLuca's visits.
Bounds also said she felt betrayed by the diocese, which filed for bankruptcy protection last year just as the first of several trials in lawsuits by DeLuca's victims was to begin.
"No one from the diocesan office has called me throughout all of this. ... I can't explain it," she said.
Tom Crumplar, an attorney for Vai, said he hoped the outcome of the trial, and the prospect of similar verdicts over the coming months, will spur Bishop Francis Malooly to agree to a fair settlement with abuse survivors in the diocese's bankruptcy case.
In his closing argument Wednesday, Vai attorney Stephen Neuberger said several officials at St. Elizabeth's had demonstrated a "head-in-the-sand, I-don't-care" attitude toward DeLuca, despite suspicions and knowledge of his pedophilia.
"The message should be, if you turn a blind eye to child abuse, there will be consequences," he told the jury.
Shields, the defense attorney, argued that parish already had received the message "loud and clear" through last week's negligence verdict.
"You don't need to punish St. Elizabeth's further in order to send a message of deterrence," she said.
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