Navy doctor settles abuse suit with diocese
By Randall Chase - The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Jan 18, 2008 20:01:04 EST

DOVER, Del. — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Wilmington has agreed to settle a sexual abuse lawsuit filed by a Navy doctor for $450,000, attorneys said Friday.

The settlement with Cmdr. Kenneth Whitwell was announced moments before a judge heard arguments in a lawsuit against church officials, including arguments on the constitutionality of a new state law that allows victims previously barred from the statute of limitations to seek damages for past abuse.

In March, Whitwell was awarded $41 million in damages by a federal jury after alleging that he was raped by the Rev. Edward J. Smith. A judge awarded Whitwell a default judgment after Smith, a former religion teacher at Archmere Academy in Wilmington, failed to respond to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Smith began working at Archmere two years after he was removed as principal at St. John Neumann High School in Philadelphia amid allegations of sexually abusing children there.

“The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington expresses its deep sorrow for the abuse suffered by Cmdr. Whitwell and also for the suffering of Cmdr. Whitwell’s parents as a result of the abuse of their son,” the diocese said in a statement.

“Sexual abuse of children is a reprehensible betrayal of trust, and it is particularly horrible when inflicted by a priest,” the statement added. “The Catholic Diocese renews its promise to continue to do its utmost to ensure that our children are protected and in no way suffer the abuse that the young Kenneth Whitwell suffered.”

Whitwell, who claims he was repeatedly molested by Smith while attending Archmere and that church officials did nothing to protect him, expressed his gratitude to Bishop Michael Saltarelli for the settlement.

“I am grateful for the bishop’s actions as another step in my personal healing process and another step on my journey to justice,” said Whitwell, 39, a Navy optometrist based in Quantico, Va. “I hope and pray that the bishop’s actions offer some comfort and healing to others in Delaware whose lives and faith have been affected by these horrible crimes.”

Whitwell’s attorney, Thomas Neuberger, said the diocese and Saltarelli decided not to follow “the scorched-Earth, blame-the-victim policy taken by other dioceses and religious orders across the country” and seem willing to work in good faith with victims of sexual abuse.

“Today’s settlement is evidence of that fact,” he said.

Anthony Flynn, an attorney for the diocese, said the settlement with Whitwell was the first since passage of Delaware’s Child Victims Act last year.

While Smith is a member of the Norbertine order and not a diocesan priest, Flynn said the diocese “feels that it has a moral obligation to him.”

The settlement signals that the diocese takes lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests very seriously, Flynn added.

“It’s to set a tone as to how we’re going to approach resolving, trying to resolve, these cases,” he said.

Whitwell’s federal lawsuit was based on sexual abuse by Smith during two weekend ski trips to Vermont because Delaware’s statute of limitations prevented Whitwell from suing for abuse that occurred here.

In August, Whitwell filed a lawsuit in state court alleging more than 200 acts of abuse in Delaware and other states. The lawsuit takes advantage of the new law, which abolished a two-year statute of limitations on personal injury lawsuits for victims of child sex abuse and allows a two-year “lookback” period during which lawsuits previously barred by the statute of limitations can be brought anew.

On Friday, attorneys for the defendants asked Superior Court Judge Robert Young to rule on several motions.

Attorneys for the Wisconsin-based national headquarters of Smith’s religious order argued that the court’s jurisdiction in the case doesn’t extend to the Wisconsin group.

An attorney for Archmere said Whitwell should not be allowed to sue in state court after successfully suing Smith in federal court, even though liability in the federal case was limited to acts of abuse in Vermont, and the school was dismissed as a defendant.

Attorneys representing Norbertine orders in Delaware and Pennsylvania, meanwhile, argued that the retroactive provision in the new law allowing the filing of previously time-barred lawsuits is unconstitutional.

Young, who set a trial date of Jan. 26, 2009, is expected to rule on the motions within a few weeks.