Archmere Grad Sues, Claiming Abuse by Priest
Man Says Incidents Took Place in 1980s
By Steven Church and Beth Miller
News Journal [Wilmington Delaware]
November 18, 2005
A Navy officer sued Archmere Academy and the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington on Thursday, claiming he was sexually molested by a priest while he was an Archmere student in the mid-1980s.
In his federal lawsuit, Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth J. Whitwell, 37, of Quantico, Va., said the Rev. Edward Smith sexually abused him while they were on ski trips in Vermont in 1984 and 1985. At the time, Smith was an English teacher at Archmere and later went on to serve as treasurer of the Claymont school's board of trustees from 1997 until 2001, according to Archmere officials.
Whitwell's attorney, Thomas S. Neuberger, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Wilmington instead of state court because Whitwell lives in Virginia and all of the defendants are in Delaware. The suit demands more than $75,000 in damages from Smith, Archmere Academy Inc., the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli, of the diocese.
The religious order that serves Archmere, the Norbertine Fathers, was not sued because the organization is not based in Delaware and that would have created a legal fight about which court the case should be assigned to, Neuberger said.
Archmere officials declined to comment Thursday, saying in a statement that the school had not yet seen the lawsuit. Although Archmere is affiliated with the Norbertine Fathers and its headmaster is traditionally a member of that Catholic order, the school is governed by an independent board of directors.
Whitwell's lawsuit argues that Archmere, the diocese and Saltarelli should be held liable because they shared responsibility for Smith.
Diocese spokesman Robert G. Krebs said that the diocese could not respond to Whitwell's claims this morning because they had not yet had a chance to read the lawsuit. The diocese has a policy of offering counseling to any victim of priest abuse, Krebs said.
In an interview Thursday, Whitwell said Smith began molesting him when he was a freshman at Archmere. For the next three years they met regularly for sex at The Patio, the name given to the living quarters for Norbertine priests that was on the Archmere campus until 2002. Other priests who lived with Smith saw Whitwell coming and going late at night, Whitwell said.
"He befriended me by paying attention to me," said Whitwell, who lived in Glen Mills, Pa., while he attended Archmere.
Smith did not return phone calls left for him at the Middletown-area monastery where he now lives. A spokesman for Archmere Academy declined to comment. Smith's superiors in the Norbertine Fathers, which sponsors Archmere Academy, did not return phone calls.
This is the second time Smith has been accused publicly of molesting teenage boys. In 2002, Smith was working for the Norbertines' business office on the Archmere campus when he was accused of sexually abusing children in the late 1970s while he was assigned to a Catholic high school in Philadelphia.
He was put on administrative leave in 2002 and not allowed to engage in active ministry under the Catholic Church's "zero tolerance" policy. Smith's superior at the time, the Rev. Thomas De Wane, said Smith had entered therapy and his ability to minister in public would be reconsidered after a therapist evaluated him.
Peter Mariani, president of the Archmere Alumni Association said he had not seen the lawsuit, but had read news accounts about it.
"My wife and I are Catholic and this saddens us when these things come out," Mariani said. "I do have a son at Archmere, and we do feel the school has policies and procedures in place to make it a safe environment - or else our son would not be there."
Whitwell said Smith was a dashing figure on campus and a small cadre of boys who were his favorites were known as "Smith's boys."
Whitwell said he was afraid someone would learn that Smith was molesting him.
He tried to stop the sexual abuse when he became a senior in 1985, Whitwell said. By then he had begun to question his sexual orientation and wanted to have a girlfriend in order to prove to himself that he was not gay, Whitwell said.
Smith objected, he said.
Whitwell said he never told anyone he was being molested. He said that even though he was ashamed of what was happening, he didn't try harder to break away from Smith because the priest told him that there was nothing morally wrong with their relationship.
"He convinced me that it was because he loved me and that it was all OK," Whitwell said.
His mother and father argued about all the attention that Smith lavished on their son, Whitwell said.
Whitwell said Smith continued to pursue him sexually even after Whitwell became an adult and began attending Villanova University. Whitwell said he finally stopped seeing Smith when he moved to Oregon to study optometry.
Statute of limitations
When the Philadelphia allegations against Smith surfaced publicly in 2002, Whitwell's mother, who lived in Delaware, asked her son if Smith had ever abused him. Whitwell denied it. He said he had kept the secret for years, locking it away and refusing to think about the years he spent as one of "Smith's boys."
Former federal prosecutor Dan Lyons said Neuberger's decision to file the case in federal court was a smart legal move because of what Neuberger said is the key to Whitwell's claims: that he was abused in Vermont. Because the molestation listed in the lawsuit is alleged to have occurred in Vermont, that state's laws - including its liberal statute of limitations - apply. If the laws of Delaware are used, the statute of limitations would mean Whitwell's suit would be thrown out quickly.
Victims of sexual abuse in Delaware have only two years to file a claim. A victim of sexual abuse in Vermont has six years from the time he or she discovers the abuse was damaging to file. Whitwell's psychiatrist helped him link the alleged abuse to problems in his marriage in 2003.
Whitwell on Thursday called on Delaware lawmakers to change the state's statute of limitations to allow greater time for victims to come forward.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said other states have revised their statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse since the national scandal emerged in 2002.
"A considerable number of states have those sorts of provisions now, recognizing that child sexual abuse, like asbestosis, often takes years before the victim understands they've been hurt," he said.
"It's important to remember that many molesters aren't brutal and overt, but gentle and subtle. It's only after my fourth marriage collapses and my fifth DUI and my sixth bar fight that I begin to understand that maybe I have some problems, get into therapy and then realize the source of my self-destructive behavior."
State Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, met with Whitwell for about 15 minutes Thursday afternoon. Lavelle, who is Catholic, said he is interested in learning more about the statute of limitations issues and how they relate to sexual predators.
"I want to be perfectly clear that for me this is not an issue of one particular institution that this has occurred in," he said. "... This goes beyond priest abuse to the Little League coach, the guy down the street - whoever. I don't think this should focus on the Catholic church. It should focus on the crime of sexual abuse."
Lavelle said it makes sense to him to start the legal clock the way Vermont"s law does - after the abuse has been identified as a cause of personal damage - especially in the case of child sexual abuse.
"We're all familiar with the shame and hiding that often results from that," he said. "To suggest you have two years to come forward seems a little unfair or arbitrary. Who knows why they picked two years?"
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