Judge: Wrongful Death Suit Falls under Victim Act

By Beth Miller
The News Journal
May 12, 2009

A Superior Court Judge has ruled that a lawsuit filed by the parents of a 19-year-old man who committed suicide because of alleged sexual abuse by a priest may proceed under the terms of Delaware's 2007 Child Victim's Act.

The 2007 law eliminated the civil statute of limitations in cases of child sexual abuse and opened a two-year period during which victims of child sexual abuse could file suit in cases that otherwise would be barred by the statute of limitations.

William J. and Othell Heaney filed suit in November, filing for the wrongful death of their son and seeking damages for his estate. Kevin Heaney was 19 years old when he committed suicide in 1987.

In their suit, the Heaneys claim their son took his life because he had been sexually abused for three years by Edward Dudzinski, who was a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington at the time.

Dudzinski's priestly credentials were revoked by the pope several years ago, diocese officials said.

The Heaneys' suit was filed against Dudzinski, the diocese and St. Mary Magdalen parish.

Attorneys for the defendants had asked Judge Calvin L. Scott Jr. to dismiss the suit, arguing that the 2007 law did not apply to the Heaneys' claim of wrongful death. Such claims must be filed within two years of a person's death. In addition, they argued that the 2007 law did not apply to the Heaneys because they were not the victims intended to benefit from the law's provisions.

Scott ruled, though, that the suit on behalf of the son's estate could proceed, because William Heaney represents his son's estate.

"There is no dispute that if Kevin Heaney were alive today he would be recognized as a 'victim' under the Child Victim's Act and thus he would have a right of action against Defendants," Scott wrote in his opinion, released Monday.

Stephen J. Neuberger, one of the attorneys representing the Heaneys, said the ruling was significant.

"In rejecting the Diocese's pleas to throw this entire case out of court, today's opinion ensures that Father Dudzinski will soon have to answer for his actions in a sworn deposition," Neuberger said, "and that the diocese also will have to explain why it placed Father Dudzinski to work with young children such as the late Kevin Heaney, even when their own employees were warning that he was a danger to young boys."


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