Friday, December 17, 2010

Parish considers next move
Delaware parish weighs next move after trial verdict in abuse case
Thursday, December 16, 2010
By Catholic News S...
By Joseph Ryan, Catholic News Service
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WILMINGTON, Del. (CNS) -- The pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Wilmington planned to meet soon with parish leaders and attorneys to discuss a Kent County Superior Court jury's Dec. 1 orders that the parish pay $3 million to a victim of sexual abuse.

A post-trial motion filed by victim John Vai's attorney also will be discussed. Vai is seeking pre-judgment interest on the $3 million verdict, which would add millions more to the amount to be paid by St. Elizabeth.

On Dec. 8, 44 years after a former priest at St. Elizabeth sexually abused Vai, a jury ordered the parish to pay $1 in punitive damages in addition to the $3 million in compensatory damages it previously awarded Vai in his civil suit against former priest Francis DeLuca and the parish.

DeLuca, who has admitted to abusing Vai, didn't attend the Dover trial or present a defense. The jury ordered him to pay $60 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Vai's case was the first trial held against a Diocese of Wilmington parish after passage of the 2007 Child Victims Act lifted Delaware's statute of limitations on sexual abuse crimes. A U.S. bankruptcy judge ruled in August that civil cases involving parishes could proceed during settlement discussions involving the diocese and others surrounding 157 civil lawsuits that allege sexual abuse by priests in Delaware. The diocese filed for bankruptcy in October 2009 and entered mediation last July.

Among the remaining suits are six additional ones against St. Elizabeth.

Father Norman Carroll, St. Elizabeth's current pastor, did sit at the defendant's table during the seven-week trial. He said he agrees with the jury's finding that DeLuca's actions were criminal and tragic.

"We don't want to associate ourselves with the abuser," the pastor said. But, he added, "the basis of this case was something that happened 44 years ago, and this generation shouldn't be paying for it."

Father Carroll, who has been pastor at St. Elizabeth since 2009, noted that it was only after the jury ordered the parish to pay the $3 million in compensatory damages that the parish was allowed to present the "human face" of the corporation in court.

The jury heard from Father Carroll as well as the parish's business manager, finance council chairman and the principal of St. Elizabeth High School, among others, about the current parish community, including its policies to protect children and its annual break-even financial goal.

Noting that one of Vai's attorneys had said the parish could raise $2 million of the $3 million compensatory damage award by selling the closed Benedictine convent on its property, Father Carroll said he doubted the building is worth that much.

In a Dec. 14 statement to The Dialog, the diocesan newspaper, Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly called the verdict a "grave injustice" to St. Elizabeth Parish. In an earlier statement immediately after the Dec. 1 verdict, the bishop repeated his apology to Vai for the suffering he experienced as a child at the hands of DeLuca.

St. Elizabeth's parishioners "bear no fault for the crimes committed by Francis DeLuca," the bishop said Dec. 14. "The verdict demonstrates the unfairness of a judicial process that enables a few claimants who get to trial first to receive a disproportionate share of the limited assets that are available to pay all claims."

Bishop Malooly said the parish didn't hire DeLuca and wasn't responsible for his supervision, because he was assigned there by his bishop. He added that if he could, he would have the diocese pay the damages levied against the parish, but "the bankruptcy prevents that."

"The diocese has paid millions in settlements in the past," Bishop Malooly noted, which is why the diocese is trying to pursue a global settlement "to fairly compensate" all survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

Ken Cresci, a 51-year lifetime member of St. Elizabeth and chairman of its finance committee for about 25 years, said the most difficult part of the trial to handle was that "these crimes were done 40 years ago and the punishment is today, and (the parish) is not the faceless entity that was portrayed in court. We have 750 students, 80 employees and many more parishioners who are going to pay the penalty for DeLuca's crimes."

The testimony of St. Elizabeth's parishioners, including himself, during the trial's punitive-damage phase had a significant impact in limiting the judgment to $1, Cresci said.

"We aren't a mega-parish with deep pockets. I believe the jury saw St. Elizabeth is a community of good, hard-working people."

As far as meeting the $3 million compensatory payment, Cresci, who works in the banking industry, said the parish "has significant real estate, but because of its break-even cash flow we don't believe we would be approved for a loan."

Attorney Mark L. Reardon, who is managing all litigation for parishes facing sex abuse lawsuits in the diocese, said some possible legal responses in light of the Vai verdicts include an appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court or an effort to push state lawmakers to amend the Child Victims Act.

But he also said a global settlement for abuse cases "is in the best interest of all concerned. Every moment of time, every ounce of energy and every dollar in the pot should be committed to the global settlement."

1 comment:

Jazzie Casas said...

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