Navy Officer Settles Church Sex Abuse Lawsuit

Associated Press, carried in Chicago Tribune

September 24, 2008,0,3769050.story

DOVER, Del. - A Navy doctor awarded $41 million in damages by a federal jury after alleging he was raped by a Catholic priest has settled a separate state lawsuit against church officials.

Attorneys for Cmdr. Kenneth Whitwell said Wednesday he had reached the agreement for an undisclosed sum with Archmere Academy in Wilmington and the Delaware, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin branches of the Norbertine religious order.

The settlement also involves apologies to Whitwell and members of the Archmere community for the abuse that Whitwell, now 40, suffered at the hands of the Rev. Edward J. Smith.

A similar settlement was reached with the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington in January, with the diocese agreeing to pay Whitwell $450,000.

Defense attorneys in the state lawsuit unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of a Delaware law enacted last year that allowed victims previously barred by the statute of limitations a two-year window in which to seek damages for past abuse.

"It has been a long and difficult journey, but settlement is an important step in the healing process for myself and my family," Whitwell said in a statement released by his attorneys. "My goals in these court cases have always been simple ones -- to tell the truth about past injustices and ensure that young children are protected from sexual predators in the future."

Whitwell, who is assigned to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., said he was particularly proud that Superior Court Judge Robert Young upheld the 2007 law "and kept the courthouse doors open to all my fellow survivors."

"After Judge Young upheld the constitutionality of the landmark Child Victim's Act of 2007, the writing was on the wall," said Thomas Neuberger, one of Whitwell's attorneys.

As part of the settlement, Archmere officials expressed "deep remorse" for the abuse Whitwell suffered, and the Norbertines acknowledged that Smith, 61, never should have been assigned to that academy or any institution with children.

Mark Reardon, an attorney for Archmere, confirmed the settlement but referred questions to academy officials. In a statement, Archmere officials apologized to Whitwell and his family and to the Archmere community for the abuse by Smith, who is a resident of the Immaculate Conception Priory in Middletown.

"With the benefit of hindsight, it was a mistake to accept the assignment of Fr. Smith to the Archmere faculty in 1982," the statement said.

The statement also included an apology for the inability of several Norbertine officials, including Archmere headmaster the Rev. Joseph McLaughlin, to detect and prevent the abuse.

William Kelleher, an attorney representing the Delaware and Pennsylvania Norbertines, issued similar statements on behalf of his clients.

"The Immaculate Conception Priory apologizes that the leadership of the Norbertine and Archmere communities allowed Edward Smith to be placed in a position of trust at Archmere, and for failing to recognize that he should not have been working with children," one statement read.

The Pennsylvania Norbertines acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in assigning Smith to Archmere.

"We applaud Commander Whitwell for having the courage to come forward, the wisdom to seek advice, and the strength to take legal action against this predator and protect others in the process," said Barbara Dorris, a spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Whitwell alleged in his lawsuit that Smith sexually abused him more than 200 times in the 1980s, when Smith was the campus minister and a religion and English teacher at Archmere, a Catholic high school in Claymont run by the Norbertines.

The lawsuit also claimed that Smith was transferred to Archmere two years after he was removed from his position as principal at St. John Neumann high school in Philadelphia after being caught sexually abusing male students there in 1980.

Whitwell won a default judgment against Smith in federal court in Wilmington last year after Smith failed to respond to claims that he molested Whitwell during ski trips to Vermont. A jury subsequently awarded him $6 million in compensatory damages and $35 million in punitive damages.


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