Update: Trial Begins in Wilmington Priest Abuse Case

Daily Times
November 16, 2009

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — A Catholic priest accused of abusing a teenage high school student almost 50 years ago was a "suicidal, out-of-control alcoholic" who posed a danger to children and should not have been allowed in the classroom, an attorney for the alleged victim said Monday.

Thomas Neuberger, an attorney representing 63-year-old James Sheehan, said the religious order Oblates of St. Francis de Sales was grossly negligent in allowing the late Rev. Francis Norris to teach at Salesianum School in Wilmington, where Sheehan claims he was abused.

"He created a zone of physical injury for children," Neuberger said of Norris, who died in 1985.

Sheehan claims that Norris forced him to engage in mutual masturbation in April 1962, then "stalked" him for two years afterward. His attorneys plan to call two other former Salesianum students who will testify that they, too, were sexually abused by Norris.

But defense attorney Colleen Shields said in her opening statement that there were no rumors or complaints of improper sexual behavior by Norris before he was transferred from New York to Wilmington in 1960.

Shield acknowledged that Norris, who suffered from severe allergies and diabetes, had problems with depression and alcohol abuse, and at one time may have expressed suicidal behavior by deliberately refusing to take his insulin. But she said there is no evidence that his emotional problems affected his work, and no record at all that the Oblates or the school had any knowledge that he might have been a pedophile.

"The plaintiffs will rely on innuendo and speculation," she said.

"If Francis Norris did the despicable thing he is accused of doing, he fooled everyone," she added.

While Norris received a letter of admonition from a superior for an unspecified "scandal" at a speaking engagement in 1959, Shields suggested that the incident involved drinking, not sexual behavior.

"There was no evidence of any sexual scandal," she said, reminding jurors that they must find the Oblates and Salesianum "grossly negligent" in order to rule for Sheehan.

Shields also said Sheehan, a star athlete at Salesianum who later played football at the University of North Carolina, never blamed the Oblates or Salesianum, where he himself later taught and coached, for the alleged abuse until he filed his lawsuit.

Sheehan's trial is the first for a lawsuit filed under a 2007 law that created a two-year window allowing claims of abuse to be brought even if the statute of limitations had expired. More than 175 lawsuits were filed before the window closed this summer.

The religious order is a separate entity from the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington.


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