|Lawyers in Abuse Suit Seek to Show Pattern
Hope to Call Other Alleged Victims of Priest As Witnesses
By James Merriweather
October 16, 2009
DOVER — Lawyers for John Michael Vai Thursday pressed a motion that would allow them to call witnesses who also claim to have been abused by Catholic Diocese of Wilmington priests.
Given a favorable ruling on that motion, Vai's attorneys — Thomas S. and Stephen J. Neuberger, Tom Crumplar and Louis Donofrio — would call several of their clients who also have filed lawsuits to show a pattern of activity by Francis G. DeLuca, the 80-year-old former priest who allegedly abused Vai from 1966 to 1970, and the diocese's failure to do something about it. Several of those witnesses have alleged abuse after the period in question.
Neilli Walsh, a diocese attorney, raised no strong objection to putting on testimony from those who claim abuse before and at the same time as the plaintiff, saying the issue boiled down to whether the evidentiary value of such testimony outweighed the prejudice that would pass to her client. She said, though, that testimony from those who allege abuse after the abuse against Vai ended would clearly pose undue prejudice against the diocese.
"I don't think it's relevant or probative in any way in the Vai case," Walsh said.
DeLuca's attorney, Stephen P. Casarino, was more adamant.
"I would object to any reference to any other person being abused," he said. "That's highly prejudicial."
Crumplar said such testimony from witnesses and a few priests he wants to call to the stand was aimed mostly at the diocese, which, he said, knew or should have known about allegations of sex abuse against DeLuca before Vai allegedly was violated. Crumplar contended that, rather than punishing DeLuca, the diocese, blind to its obligation to protect children, merely transferred him from one parish to another without notice of sexual abuse allegations.
He said some of the evidence would be offered to demonstrate liability, other testimony would speak to the "gross negligence" standard needed to trigger punitive damages and some would be used for both purposes.
"We're dealing with a coverup, a conspiracy, and that's what we're trying to prove," Crumplar said.
At one point, Superior Court President Judge James T. Vaughn Jr., expressed a measure of skepticism at the sweep of the plaintiff's motions.
"We've got this going on all around the country," Vaughn said of allegations of abuse of children by Catholic priests.
"We can't dismiss all the priests, good or bad."
A trial of Vai's personal injury lawsuit against the diocese and DeLuca is set to begin at 10 a.m. Monday. Vaughn, acknowledging he was on the verge of information overload after about seven hours of arguments over two days, said Thursday that he would issue rulings from the bench on dozens of motions filed by both sides, which could push jury selection and opening arguments back to Tuesday.
Over the two days, eight lawyers, all with the Wilmington law firm of Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, strode to the lectern on behalf of the diocese.
Given a confusing swirl of dates, factual disputes and initials used to identify plaintiffs who filed other lawsuits without disclosing their names, the judge said his decisions on the motions would probably be limited to issuing rules to govern the conduct of the trial, leaving questions of fact strictly to the jury.
Wednesday, Vaughn rejected a defense motion for summary judgment, which would have headed off a trial of Vai's lawsuit on the merits. Vaughn also ruled that the Delaware Child Victims Act of 2007, which opened a two-year window for the filing of sexual abuse cases that otherwise would have been barred by statutes of limitation, allows for punitive damages and revives previous claims for fraud, conspiracy and aiding and abetting.
The ruling also rejects the claim of St. Elizabeth's Parish, a defendant, that priests who work in the parish are not its employees. He said, though, the plaintiff failed to show that Vai's contractual rights as a parishioner were breached by the defendants' failure to keep him safe from abuse.
According to Donofrio, Vai, now 57, who allegedly was abused by DeLuca while he was an altar boy at St. Elizabeth's, suffered from "traumatic amnesia" until 2004, when he read a News Journal article about priest sexual abuse. His memory also was bolstered, he said, by a lawsuit filed by Robert Quill — one of 21 alleged victims of DeLuca who all are clients of the lawyers handling Vai's case. Earlier, Vai's lawyers had disclosed that Vai knew Quill and used to walk to school with him.
In his lawsuit, Vai alleges that DeLuca abused him more than 100 times at the church and on altar boy trips to New York, Rehoboth Beach and Washington, D.C. In introducing Vai after the lawsuit was filed on June 20, 2008, Stephen Neuberger said he was a divorced father of two who works in construction, and, as a result of the abuse, suffered from relationship problems, social isolation, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, nightmares, flashbacks and a loss of religious faith.
According to Crumplar, DeLuca's history of sexual abuse began with his first assignment as a priest in 1958, saying he admitted to abusing five boys while working in the Salisbury, Md.-based St. Francis de Sales parish. DeLuca had spoken at one point of abusing five boys without disclosing a location, he said, but Walsh said the diocese received complaints from nobody in the Salisbury parish.
"Not a single victim from St. Francis de Sales has come forward to claim abuse," she said.
Crumplar, in building a case for calling clients who allegedly were abused by DeLuca after he stopped abusing Vai, said he continued to abuse boys until 1993, when the diocese, moved by allegations of sexual abuse, allowed him to retire to Syracuse, N.Y., his hometown. He was convicted in 2007 of of sexual abuse of a child, Michael Dingle, who later filed a lawsuit in Delaware and is one of the alleged victims that Vai's attorneys want to put on the witness stand.
Dingle, who was 18 when DeLuca was convicted, lives in Syracuse, which, Donofrio said, would make him an important witness in Vai's case.
"He's significant in Vai's case because Vai has traumatic amnesia," he said, "and his strongest memory is the first abuse in New York."
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