Del. High Court Upholds Child Sex Victims Law

Wall Street Journal
February 22, 2011

[court decision]

DOVER, Del. A state law allowing alleged victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits even though the normal time for doing so had expired is constitutional and does not violate defendants' rights to prompt due process, the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday.

The 2007 law gave people a two-year window to file claims even though the period for suing the accused molesters, known as the statute of limitations, had passed. More than 175 lawsuits alleging past abuse were filed before the window closed.

In upholding the law, the court ordered a new trial for James Sheehan of Wilmington, whose lawsuit was the first filed under the Child Victims Act of 2007 to go to trial. The law is similar to legislation enacted in California and being considered in New York and Pennsylvania.

A jury ruled in 2009 that the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, a Catholic religious order, was liable for Sheehan's abuse by the late Oblate priest Francis Norris in 1962 at Salesianum School in Wilmington. The jury nevertheless concluded that the Oblates' gross negligence was not the cause of the harm Sheehan claimed to have suffered, and it awarded him no damages.

Salesianum was cleared of any liability.

Both sides appealed, with the Oblates challenging the constitutionality of the law and the judge's decision to allow other alleged victims of Norris to testify. Sheehan, meanwhile, argued that the judge made several errors that prejudiced him.

The Supreme Court rejected the Oblates' argument that when a statute of limitations expires, a defendant is left with a "right" of knowing that no one can bring a claim against him.

"As a matter of constitutional law, statutes of limitation go to matters of remedy, not destruction of fundamental rights," wrote Chief Justice Myron Steele, adding that the law can be "applied retroactively because it affects matters of procedure and remedies, not substantive or vested rights."

The court also said the law was not unconstitutional as specifically applied to the Oblates, who argued that they had no notice or knowledge before Sheehan's lawsuit about the risks that Norris posed to children.

The high court said there was abundant evidence "including the Oblates' own records demonstrating prior knowledge of Norris' sexual abuse of children and his many other problems," that the order may have violated the educational standard of care.

The court said Sheehan deserved a new trial because the trial judge wrongly prohibited him from suing Salesianum for fraud because it presented Norris as being safe to children when school officials allegedly knew he wasn't.

The Supreme Court also said the trial judge erred in preventing psychologist Diane Mandt Langberg from testifying for Sheehan about the general injuries suffered by victims of child sexual abuse.

The court said Langberg's testimony was "directly and vitally relevant" to the most critical issue in the case the cause of Sheehan's alleged injuries, which included emotional and psychological problems and alcohol abuse.

"Langberg's testimony was necessary to establish the psychological baseline for the general types of emotional, mental, spiritual and physical injuries that survivors of childhood sexual abuse suffer," Steele wrote. "That testimony would tend to prove that childhood sexual abuse can in fact cause the types of injuries suffered by Sheehan."

Stephen Neuberger, an attorney for Sheehan, said the court ruling was a victory for all survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Delaware.

Mark Reardon, an attorney for the Oblates, said the ruling provides guidance for resolving more than 30 sex abuse lawsuits still pending against the order.

"This case presented to the Supreme Court serious issues of first impression," Reardon said.

The Rev. James Greenfield, head of the Wilmington religious order, said in a statement that it is dedicated to "healing and reconciliation" with abuse victims and committed to a global resolution of the lawsuits.

Greenfield nevertheless maintained that the Oblates had no information before Sheehan filed his lawsuit that Norris was an alleged abuser.

"We are concerned that the Supreme Court's decision seemed to be based on inferences and assumptions that are not stated in any of the few available records," he said.

The court's decision came one day before jury selection was to have begun in a lawsuit filed by two other former Salesianum students against the Oblates. Those cases were settled out of court last week.

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