Friday, December 18, 2009

Diocese bankruptcy judge unseals victim settlement

Last updated December 17, 2009 6:13 p.m. PT

Diocese bankruptcy judge unseals victim settlement

DOVER, Del. -- The judge presiding over the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington ordered Thursday that details of a settlement with an alleged victim of priest sexual abuse be unsealed.

Judge Christopher Sontchi ordered the diocese to promptly disclose the settlement amount paid to James Sheehan in response to a request from The Associated Press seeking access to judicial records in the case.

The diocese had not filed the disclosure notice as of Thursday night, but Sheehan attorney Tom Neuberger told the AP that the case was settled for $17,500.

Attorneys for Sheehan and the diocese asked Sontchi last month to approve the settlement and to keep the amount paid to Sheehan confidential. Such secrecy is routine in civil lawsuits, but a debtor in bankruptcy is expected to open its finances to scrutiny by creditors and the court.

A Delaware bankruptcy judge ruled against such secret settlements two years ago, but diocese attorneys noted in a joint motion submitted to the court that this case was different because Sheehan was requesting secrecy.

Neuberger said he decided to have the settlement amount sealed for strategic reasons in advance of a trial in Sheehan's lawsuit against the Oblates of St. Francis de Sale, a Catholic religious order that was a co-defendant of the diocese.

Sheehan, 63, claimed he was abused by the late Oblate priest Francis Norris in 1962 at Salesianum School in Wilmington.

Neuberger said he did not want the settlement to taint the jury pool. He denied that he wanted to keep the relatively small amount secret to avoid setting a precedent for settling scores of other priest sex abuse cases against the diocese. Those cases created a potential liability that drove the diocese to seek bankruptcy protection in October.

"It's not a precedent in any fashion whatsoever for any case," Neuberger said.

A New Castle County jury that heard Sheehan's lawsuit ruled last month that the Oblates were liable under the Delaware's Child Victims Act, but it also concluded that the liability was not the proximate cause of the harm Sheehan claimed to have suffered, and awarded him no damages.

That ruling came in the first lawsuit under Delaware's Child Victims Act to go to trial. The act, passed in 2007, gave alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse two years to file lawsuits for offenses that happened long ago and otherwise would have been barred under the statute of limitations.

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