Navy Doctor Sues Church Officials, Claiming Sexual Abuse

By Randall Chase
The Associated Press, carried in WVEC [Virginia]
November 18, 2005

A Navy doctor filed a federal lawsuit Thursday alleging that he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a teenager, and that church officials did nothing to protect him.

Lt. Commander Kenneth Whitwell, 37, claims he was abused for several years by the Rev. Edward J. Smith while attending Archmere Academy, a Catholic high school in Claymont.

Whitwell alleges that Smith, who now works at a Norbertine Order priory in Middletown, began molesting him in 1982, when he was a 14-year-old freshman and Smith was his religion teacher.

According to the lawsuit, Smith had been removed from his job as principal at St. John Neumann High School in Philadelphia two years earlier amid allegations of sexually abusing children and was "hidden" by church officials in Maryland before being transferred to Delaware.

"For three years while I was in high school, he completely manipulated me and dominated my life," said Whitwell, a Florida resident who is stationed in Quantico, Va.

"He assured me it was natural," added Whitwell, who said he repressed memories of the abuse for years until 2003, when it surfaced unexpectedly during a heated argument with his wife.

"I repressed all that happened to me in an effort to forget about it," he said. "I put it somewhere where I could never find it again."

After undergoing therapy, Whitwell traveled to Delaware last fall to confront church officials, who, he said, already had identified Smith as the alleged abuser after being alerted by colleagues in Florida, even though Whitwell and his wife had never given Smith's name to any official.

Whitwell said that while he was waiting to talk to the Rev. James Bagnato, Smith's supervisor at the Middletown priory, Smith appeared in the lobby, recognized Whitwell and whispered to him "So we're OK with what happened between us, right?"

"I said absolutely not," Whitwell recalled. ".... He turned white and began sweating."

Whitwell said Smith admitted his guilt during a subsequent meeting at which Bagnato was present.

"He said 'I did it because I loved you,'" recalled Whitwell, who is suing Smith, Archmere, the Diocese of Wilmington and Bishop Michael Saltarelli.

Bob Krebs, a spokesman for the diocese, said officials would not comment on the lawsuit.

In a prepared statement, Archmere Academy officials said they had not seen the complaint, but they acknowledged that a sexual misconduct allegation against Smith was reported to the priory in May 2002. That complaint involved allegations of abuse while Smith was assigned to the Neumann school in Philadelphia.

"In light of the 2002 complaint, Father Smith was instructed that he no longer was permitted on the campus of Archmere Academy at any time, for any reason," the statement said.

According to Archmere officials, Smith has been assigned since 1996 to the business office of the Immaculate Conception Priory, which until 2002 was on the campus of Archmere, and is not engaged in any public ministry.

Telephone calls to the priory were not immediately returned Thursday.

While alleging years of abuse in Delaware, Whitwell's lawsuit focuses on two weekend ski trips to Vermont in 1984 and 1985, during which he claims Whitwell abused him.

Whitwell's attorney, Thomas Neuberger, said the case centers on the Vermont trips because that state's statute of limitations is more favorable to victims of childhood sex crimes.

In addition to filing the lawsuit, Whitwell met with two Delaware lawmakers Thursday to discuss legislation he and Neuberger are proposing that would expand the statute of limitations for civil actions arising from injuries suffered as the result of childhood sexual abuse.

The bill, modeled on Vermont law, also would allow a one-year amnesty period during which people barred by the current statute of limitation from filing civil suit could bring claims.


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