Abuse Victims Receive Closure

By Beth Miller
News Journal
July 29, 2011|topnews|text|Home

The long, painful negotiation between the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington and about 150 survivors of clergy sexual abuse ended Thursday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where a judge confirmed the diocese's reorganization plan, including a $77.4 million settlement with those survivors.

The court order signed by Judge Christopher Sontchi will release the diocese and all of its parishes from further litigation in the mountain of lawsuits filed from 2007 to 2009, after the money changes hands. On Sontchi's order, a 60-day clock was set in motion, after which the diocese will transfer the money to a settlement trust and checks will be cut for the abuse survivors, some of whom were abused by priests decades ago.

"Justice has been served for all the victims," said Ray Donahue of Wilmington, who was 12 years old when he was repeatedly raped by the Rev. Leonard Mackiewicz in 1967. Mackiewicz died in 1994.

Bill Heaney would not agree. Heaney's son, Kevin, committed suicide in 1987 at the age of 19 after years of abuse by a former priest, Edward Dudzinski, who was in the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington at the time and -- after being removed from ministry in the diocese -- went on to work as a juvenile counselor in Virginia.

"Is justice done? Absolutely not," Heaney said. "To me, justice would have been these rapist priests in jail as well as the bishops and others involved in the coverup. Because of the criminal statute of limitations, that wasn't possible. Our only alternative was the civil suits."

That alternative was made possible by the Child Victim's Act, passed by the General Assembly in 2007. The law opened a two-year window during which civil suits could be filed that otherwise would have been barred by the civil statute of limitations.

"This is a tremendous victory for all the people of Delaware," said Matthias Conaty, co-chairman of the official committee of survivors, whose case against the Capuchin religious order, St. Edmond's Academy and the Rev. Paul Daleo is pending in Superior Court. "It's really about the wisdom of the state Legislature to pass the Child Victim's Act. It set in motion a process to let us have a chance at justice. It's also a story of the tenacious survivors. Our No. 1 goal was that this would not happen to any other child."

Claims related to the religious orders are not part of the diocese plan, but the diocese and all of the parishes named as defendants in the suits will be free of any further litigation when the negotiated releases are signed and payments to survivors made. That is when the diocese will have officially emerged from bankruptcy, said diocese attorney Robert Brady.

Wilmington attorney Thomas Neuberger, whose firm represented the majority of abuse survivors, thanked Sontchi for his equity and praised the American system of justice where "the mighty, the powerful and the little, the downtrodden, the average Joe stand on an equal footing."

"Our eight-year battle has ended in victory and some small award of justice for 150 ruined lives," he said.

Bishop W. Francis Malooly did not attend Thursday's hearing. But in a prepared statement, he said he was pleased that the plan was approved.

"Today marks a moment of transition for our diocese," Malooly said. "The road ahead will not be an easy one, but I have experienced the spirit of the Catholic community of Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and I am optimistic that together, with God's help, we have a bright future."

In closing remarks, Sontchi said the case was the toughest he has dealt with -- both as a judge and as a practicing attorney. Unlike other cases, which often include hundreds of millions of dollars, banks and hedge funds and affect more people outside Delaware than in it, this case hit home. Sontchi said he grew up near St. John the Beloved and attended its carnivals every summer.

"Our civil justice system handles compensating people for wrongdoing through the use of money," he said. "Sometimes that's a cold way to do things. I'm happy that this plan includes not just monetary provisions but nonmonetary provisions that I hope will be helpful to healing the wrongs of the victims and also healing the relationship the diocese has with the community at large and, more specifically, the Catholic community."

Among the nonmonetary terms of the plan are requirements that the diocese release church files on abuser priests and agree to adopt policies and procedures to prevent abuse in the future. The files must be released within 120 days, said diocese attorney Anthony Flynn.

Under the terms of the plan, the diocese will draw on funds from insurance policies, the Catholic Foundation and other non-diocesan Catholic entities to cover the claims. It also has agreed to pump millions of dollars into its underfunded pension plan for lay employees, a situation revealed when the diocese was forced to open its books to the court.

Nine priests and former priests will be excluded from pension and benefit provisions they might have received from the diocese. The eight were named in lawsuits or named by Bishop Michael Saltarelli when he released his 2006 list of diocesan priests against whom the diocese had received "credible, substantiated or otherwise corroborated" allegations of abuse. Most on Saltarelli's list have died and Sontchi made exclusion of the others from pension and benefit programs a condition of his approval.

Pension and other benefits will be provided to one accused priest -- the Rev. James Richardson, Flynn said. Richardson was not among the priests named by Saltarelli in 2006, and when allegations emerged in a 2009 lawsuit, Richardson denied them, Flynn said. He later was cleared by the Diocesan Review Board, Flynn said.

That "sustenance" question was a concern to the diocese, whose lawyers expressed concern over the diocese's obligation to the priests, and also to survivors, who objected to any such payments. While the bishop had said he did not wish to provide such benefits for the priests, he also said canon law -- the Catholic Church's legal code -- could require it.

Sontchi made clear Thursday that his rulings relate to the diocese's civil status, not its ecclesiastical status. His rulings were not meant to prohibit expressions of faith, only to set boundaries around legal claims and define the diocese's civil obligations.

The agreement does allow Catholic Charities to provide sustenance for anyone -- including the abuser priests -- if they appealed for such aid or appeared at one of the organization's service facilities.

Attorney James Stang, who represented the official committee of survivors, thanked all of the the survivors who served during the lengthy negotiation process.

"They served on the committee at the risk of disclosing their names," he said, "and also at the cost of the real experience they suffered in the sense of reliving the experience of abuse. As a consequence, they formed a kind of band of brothers. It was a most difficult service."

Sontchi closed the day with a few lines from a famous prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, called "Make Me An Instrument of Thy Peace," in which the saint asks that "where there is injury, let me sow pardon, where there is doubt, faith, where there is hatred, love."

"I hope this case starts that process," Sontchi said.


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