Shelved Abuse Case Goes Forward

By Sean O'Sullivan
News Journal
October 26, 2010

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

The case was supposed to go to trial a year ago this month, but the bankruptcy filing by the Diocese of Wilmington put the case on hold along with nearly 150 others. The only reason why this one, and a handful of others, is moving forward is because the diocese has been dropped as a defendant and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Sontchi ruled in August that the cases could proceed against individual defendants and parishes, which are considered to be separate business entities from the diocese.

Vai, who filed his lawsuit in June 2008, is seeking damages from St. Elizabeth's, where Vai said he 1was a parishioner and altar boy in the late 1960s when DeLuca began sexually abusing him.

Opening arguments in the case are expected sometime today.

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 extends to others, including the parish.

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

Seven of the eight cases that Sontchi allowed to go forward involve DeLuca as a defendant, and all had been set and ready to go to trial a year ago.

Sontchi cleared the cases to go forward 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 trial was called off last year just 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 appear, 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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