$30 Million Is Awarded over Abuse by Priest

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
December 2, 2010

A jury in Delaware on Wednesday awarded $30 million in compensatory damages to a man who said he was sexually abused more than 100 times by a Roman Catholic priest the largest such award granted to a single victim in a clergy abuse case, victims' advocates said.

In an unusual outcome, the jury decided that the parish where the abuse occurred, St. Elizabeth in Wilmington, must pay $3 million of the damages, while the perpetrator is liable for the rest. Parishes have previously been held liable in only one or two cases involving abuse by Catholic priests, according to records kept by an advocacy group for victims known as

It is usually the diocese or the religious order, not the parish, that is held responsible for damages. But the Diocese of Wilmington, which covers all of Delaware, declared bankruptcy last year just as the lawsuit was going to trial, so this lawsuit as well as more than 100 pending lawsuits against the diocese was frozen.

The jury is set to hear evidence on punitive damages on Monday. Thomas S. Neuberger and Stephen J. Neuberger, father-son lawyers for the plaintiffs, say they have saved the most damning evidence for this phase, and that the award to the plaintiff could grow substantially beyond the compensatory damages.

The abuse occurred in the 1960s. But Delaware and California passed "window" laws in recent years that temporarily lifted the statutes of limitations, allowing old cases like this one to be filed. Catholic dioceses in several other states, including New York, have successfully lobbied against such laws.

The plaintiff, John M. Vai, is one of seven people who have filed lawsuits alleging abuse by Francis DeLuca, a former priest whose defrocking was announced by the diocese in 2008.

St. Elizabeth parish is a large church with an elementary school, a high school, and three resident priests. The Rev. Norman Carroll, the parish pastor, said he could not talk about the case because it was continuing. Mr. Vai, the plaintiff, testified that the parish was negligent in his abuse. He said that when he was a small boy being hauled up the stairs to his abuser's bedroom in the rectory, he was spotted by another parish priest, who is now a diocesan official. The official, Msgr. Thomas Cini, testified that he was unaware of the abuse.

Another witness testified that other priests in the parish were aware of Mr. DeLuca's behavior.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest who was an expert witness for the plaintiff in this case and many others, said, "This was egregious because of the level of direct knowledge imputed to priests who lived there at the time."

The bishop of Wilmington, W. Francis Malooly, apologized in a statement to Mr. Vai and other victims. But he said that the bishop of the diocese, not the parishes, should be held responsible for the actions of priests.

"It is unfortunate that the parish community of St. Elizabeth's is being made to pay for the criminal and sinful acts of someone who was assigned by the diocesan bishop at the time to be one of their priests," he said.

But Thomas Neuberger said that the diocese had so far promised in bankruptcy proceedings only $2 million toward settlements with victims.

Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.