Jury awards $30 million in Del. priest abuse case
Diocese, parish both held liable
BALTIMORE — A Delaware jury has awarded $30 million in damages to a man who said he was abused by a priest — a verdict exceptional for both the dollar amount and for finding the local parish liable, not just the diocese.
The lawsuit by John Vai claimed that he was abused repeatedly as a boy in the 1960s by Francis DeLuca when the former priest was a teacher at St. Elizabeth’s parish in Wilmington, Del.
Advocates for victims of clergy abuse said that the amount of the compensatory damages was the largest ever awarded in such a lawsuit in the United States, and that a parish had never before been found liable for abuse
“It is far and away the largest single verdict in any clergy sex abuse case for compensatory damages,’’ said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has represented more than 2,000 alleged victims. “This would be a new and unprecedented outcome that I have no doubt is much needed and well deserved and hard fought.’’
In a statement, Vai thanked the jury and expressed gratitude that Delaware’s legal system “can render justice to all survivors of childhood sexual abuse.’’
“Stunning testimony is coming out which exposes to the light of day the rampant sexual abuse of innocent children,’’ Vai said. “The cover-up continues, and to this very day these churches refuse to accept responsibility for their actions.’’
Bishop Francis Malooly of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington issued a statement apologizing to Vai for the abuse by DeLuca, but he said he was disappointed that the jury found St. Elizabeth’s liable.
“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,’’ Malooly said.
A judge ruled Nov. 15 that DeLuca was liable for the abuse but left the jury to decide the amount of damages. DeLuca was removed from the priesthood in 2008 after being convicted of repeatedly molesting his 18-year-old grandnephew in New York. The jury is expected to begin deliberating on punitive damages Monday, so the amount of the total award could go up.
The Wilmington diocese, which is facing more than 100 priest abuse lawsuits, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year. A bankruptcy judge allowed Vai’s lawsuit to go forward with DeLuca and the parish as defendants. DeLuca and other former priests in the diocese face several more lawsuits
Vai’s attorney, Thomas Neuberger, said he did not expect to be able to collect damages from DeLuca but said the parish has ample assets to be able to pay the award. Attorneys for the parish did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the verdict was a milestone because a jury found that culpability for abuse extended beyond a priest or his bishop.
“This jury’s saying, no, it doesn’t matter if your title is bishop or pastor,’’ Clohessy said. “If you knowingly put kids and keep kids in harm’s way, there’s a steep price to be paid.’’