Diocese, School Are Hit with Abuse Suit
Ex-Salesianum Student, 61, Says Priest Assaulted Him

By Beth Miller
News Journal
December 1, 2007

A former Salesianum School football star filed suit Friday in Superior Court against the school, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, alleging that he was sexually assaulted in 1962 by a priest who taught at the school.

The Rev. Francis L. Norris died about 20 years ago, an attorney for his former order says.

In the suit, James E. Sheehan, 61, alleges that the late Rev. Francis L. Norris, an Oblate who taught Latin at the school, assaulted him and tried to rape him after school when he was a 14-year-old sophomore. He also claims officials of the school, the religious order and the diocese had prior knowledge that Norris had molested boys.

Attorney Mark Reardon, who represents Salesianum and the Oblates, said he had not seen the suit and could not comment on it. Sam Waltz, spokesman for the Oblates, said the Oblates had not seen the suit and would not comment on its allegations.

Waltz said Norris died about 20 years ago, but did not have records available to say how long he taught at Salesianum or where he may have served during his ministry.

Diocese attorney Anthony G. Flynn said he had not seen the suit and had not heard Norris' name mentioned in previous allegations brought to the diocese. But, he said, any allegations against an Oblate priest might have gone directly to the religious order, which operates independently within the diocese with the bishop's consent.

Sheehan enrolled at Salesianum in 1961. He alleges the assaults occurred after school in 1962.

According to the suit, Sheehan was playing basketball with four or five other students when Norris came in and told them they had to leave and that he would drive them home. After dropping off several of the students, Norris allegedly told Sheehan and the remaining passengers where prostitutes could be found. He then dropped off everyone but Sheehan.

The suit alleges Norris drove to P.S. du Pont High School, talked to Sheehan about God's will, then forced himself on the teen, grabbing his genitals through his pants. Sheehan says he fought Norris off and jumped out of the car. He then demanded to be taken home, but says Norris drove instead to Harlan Junior High School in Wilmington and grabbed the boy again. The boy jumped out of the car again and demanded to be taken home.

This time, the suit says, Norris took the boy to a dark spot behind the Salesianum School gym, attempted to rape him and forced the boy to grab the priest's genitals. He then took Sheehan home and struck up a conversation with Sheehan's father.

After that night, Sheehan claims, Norris visited the Sheehan home several times a month, and Sheehan avoided being alone with the priest.

Sheehan later went on to earn varsity letters in football, basketball, swimming and track. He earned All-State honors as a guard for Salesianum's football team. He went on to play varsity football at the University of North Carolina, then returned to Salesianum as an assistant coach and history teacher.

According to the suit, Sheehan did not tell anyone about the priest's actions until a few years after he graduated from Salesianum. He then mentioned it to another alumnus, who said the same thing had happened to him. Sheehan later told his parents, his siblings, a former priest who married one of his sisters and his own wife and seven children.

According to The News Journal archives, Sheehan coached at Sanford School, Glen Mills (Pa.) School, and Cecil Community College in North East, Md. He owned Sheehan's Locker Room, a tavern in Wilmington, for a while. A March 1980 News Journal article describes a series of events in which Sheehan was accused of impersonating Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Bill Bergey, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans, some of whom bought drinks and meals for him.

Sheehan now is seriously ill with congestive heart failure, according to his attorney, Thomas S. Neuberger. Neuberger hopes to videotape Sheehan's testimony to preserve it in case Sheehan's health deteriorates further.

Contact Beth Miller at 324-2784 or


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.