Sex-abuse Lawsuit down to One Claim

By Sean O'Sullivan
The News Journal
November 5, 2009

Oblates faces allegation of gross negligence

WILMINGTON -- One of the few civil lawsuits seeking damages for alleged abuse by a priest that was not affected by the recent bankruptcy filing by the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington continued to a possible trial this month in New Castle County Superior Court.

Judge Calvin L. Scott Jr. held an hour-long hearing Wednesday where he heard arguments on several issues that have to be resolved before trial on Nov. 16.

Scott, however, did not indicate how he will rule on a key motion that could end the case before it goes before a jury.

Last month, Scott dismissed several claims by James Sheehan, 53, against the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales -- including fraud and conspiracy -- in a lawsuit that alleges Sheehan was sexually abused by the late Rev. Francis L. Norris in 1962 when Sheehan was a student at Salesianum School and Norris was on the faculty.

This left Sheehan's lawsuit with only one civil claim -- gross negligence by the Oblates in allowing Norris into a classroom -- and Scott is still considering a motion for summary judgment by the Oblates to dismiss that last claim.

During Wednesday's proceedings, Attorney Stephen J. Neuberger argued the religious order failed to meet generally accepted standards when it allowed Norris to be a teacher and coach given his documented problems at the time with alcoholism, depression, general instability and at least one attempted suicide.

Neuberger said an expert will testify that each one of those issues would have kept Norris out of a teaching job in a public school, let alone all of them put together.

Attorney Colleen D. Shields, representing the Oblates, countered that such evidence is irrelevant because it did not put the school "on notice" that Norris was a risk or had the potential to sexually abuse a student as Sheehan alleges.

Neuberger responded that the documented suicidal behavior by itself put students with Norris at risk for physical harm, and sexual abuse is a form of physical harm.

Outside court, Oblates attorney Mark L. Reardon took no position on the validity of Sheehan's claim of abuse, noting that Sheehan "alleges something happened 47 years ago and the only other person involved is dead."

"Since Mr. Sheehan has chosen to call himself a plaintiff, he has accepted the burden of proving his allegation. ... We are simply asking him to meet his burden," Reardon said, adding the Oblates would have been happy to provide Sheehan with any counseling or support he needed if he had approached them outside court.

Neuberger said that when his office approached the Oblates earlier about resolving a similar case, the order told them to "go jump in a lake."

After he graduated from Salesianum, Sheehan later returned to the school as a teacher and football coach.

Originally Sheehan -- who is in failing health -- also had sued the diocese, but last week settled that portion of the lawsuit out of court, pending approval by a bankruptcy judge.

Contact Sean O'Sullivan at 324-2777 or


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