Ruling in Del. Priest Abuse Lawsuit Favors Church

By Randall Chase
November 24, 2009

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) The first trial under a Delaware law allowing alleged victims of child sexual abuse to sue for offenses that happened long ago ended Tuesday with a mixed message from the jury.

A New Castle County jury deliberated about eight hours before declaring that the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, a Catholic religious order, was liable under the Child Victims Act of 2007.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by James Sheehan, 63, who claimed he was abused by the late Oblate priest Francis Norris in 1962 at Salesianum School in Wilmington.

While finding the Oblates liable, the jury also concluded the liability was not the proximate cause of the harm Sheehan claimed to have suffered, and awarded him no damages.

Salesianum, meanwhile, was cleared of any liability.

"The jury's message with this verdict is a bad man did a bad thing, but the religious order that assigned him and the school that brought him on were not responsible for his personal sins and crimes," said Mark Reardon, an attorney for the Oblates.

Reardon said the verdict provides little guidance for how courts will handle scores of other lawsuits filed under the 2007 law, which created a two-year window allowing claims of child sexual abuse to be brought even if the statute of limitations had expired. More than 175 lawsuits were filed before the window closed this summer.

Thomas Neuberger, an attorney for Sheehan, said the jury was "obviously confused" on the question of injury-related damages.

"The jury made a mistake," said Neuberger, adding that there has to be injury for having to endure forced masturbation and other abuse, and that he will file papers to have the court award appropriate damages.

Reardon suggested that the legislature consider amending the 2007 law to provide procedural stepping stones for such lawsuits before they go to a jury.

"This is not the kind of case they anticipated coming to the Delaware Superior Court," Reardon said, noting that Norris has been dead 24 years and that the alleged abuse involved a single incident.

Sheehan, in a statement issued by Neuberger, said the case was never about money, but about getting at the truth about the Oblates' failure to protect children.

The Rev. James Greenfield, head of the Oblates' Wilmington-Philadelphia province, said he hoped to continue assisting Sheehan and other victims of abuse in healing.

"There really are no winners or losers here," he said.

Sheehan, a former altar boy and star athlete at Salesianum who went on to play football at the University of North Carolina, claimed that the Oblates were grossly negligent in placing Norris at Salesianum in 1960, despite knowing he was a suicidal alcoholic who had admitted that he couldn't control his own actions, and whose doctors had recommended that he be committed to a psychiatric hospital before his problems grew more serious.

Two other men testified that they, too, were sexually abused by Norris at Salesianum, but defense attorney Colleen Shields argued that the Oblates didn't know Norris may have been a pedophile. Shields also argued that Norris' alcoholism and depression could not be considered the "proximate cause" under the law for any injury to Sheehan.

All but one member of the jury declined to comment as they left the courthouse. A juror who declined to give her name said the panel found Sheehan credible, but that jurors had to follow the law, "and the law didn't help the plaintiff."


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