Jury Selection Begins in Trial against Deluca, Parish

By Sean O’sullivan
News Journal
October 25, 2010

Francis DeLuca, 81, has already been convicted of sexually abusing a child in New York State. (News Journal file)

Attorneys began selecting a jury today to hear the priest abuse case filed by 58-year-old John M. Vai against defrocked priest Francis DeLuca and St. Elizabeth’s Roman Catholic Parish in Wilmington.

Vai, who filed his lawsuit in June 2008, is seeking damages from St. Elizabeth’s, where Vai had been a parishioner and altar boy in the late 1960s when DeLuca began sexually abusing him.

Opening arguments in the case could come later this afternoon or Tuesday depending on the pace of jury selection.

DeLuca, 81, has already been convicted of sexually abusing a child in New York State and according to attorneys has already admitted under oath to molesting Vai and others when they were boys.

So the real issue in this lawsuit -- filed in Kent County Superior Court under the Delaware Child Victims Act of 2007 -- is what liability others, including the parish and the Wilmington Diocese, bear.

Vai also named the diocese in his original lawsuit -- charging church officials knew DeLuca was a problem but just kept moving him from parish to parish to cover up the crimes -- but that part of Vai’s civil case was put off last October, on the eve of going to trial, when the diocese filed for bankruptcy protection.

The outcome of this case -- including any damages and assessment of liability -- could have a significant impact on diocese bankruptcy proceedings, and ongoing settlement talks to resolve some 150 other similar civil lawsuits, in that the results will likely be used as a yardstick to set settlement amounts.

Vai’s case is the first of eight cases that U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Sontchi ruled could go to trial while the diocese bankruptcy case is proceeding in his court. Seven of the eight cases involve DeLuca as a defendant and all were put on hold by the bankruptcy court last October -- on the eve of trial -- when the diocese filed for bankruptcy protection.

Sontchi made his ruling in August after hearing from several of the victims, including Vai, who testified about the ongoing psychological and physical harm they would suffer if their cases continued to be delayed.

On the stand before Sontchi, a sometimes emotional Vai talked about how he was brought up Catholic and viewed DeLuca and all priests as authority figures who must be respected and obeyed. Vai said at first he was pleased when DeLuca began to lavish attention on him, but said, “the closer we got, the stranger the relationship got.” Only in hindsight, Vai said, was it apparent that DeLuca was “courting” him and grooming him for the sexual abuse that would follow over a number of years.

Vai told Sontchi that since his previous trial was called off hours before it was to start, he’s felt like he was “on a lazy Susan,” and that he needs the catharsis of a trial, and holding people to account, to put the abuse behind him.

Vai is not likely to get the chance to confront or even see DeLuca during this proceeding.

Last week, DeLuca’s attorney withdrew from the case, citing DeLuca’s inability to pay legal bills. Attorney Stephen Casarino said DeLuca is also suffering from health issues related to recent heart surgery and ongoing issues with depression due to his legal woes and is not likely to travel from Syracuse, N.Y., to represent himself or testify at trial.

Superior Court President Judge James T. Vaughn Jr. ruled that if DeLuca fails to show, portions of DeLuca’s sworn deposition can be used as a substitute in court.

Contact Sean O’Sullivan at 324-2777 or


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