In its two years, Child Victim's Act brings 170 lawsuits alleging abuse
By Beth Miller
© 2009 The News Journal (Wilmington, Deleware)
Original article archived at DelawareOnline.com
Delaware opened its courthouse doors to victims of child sexual abuse
two years ago -- and they came by the dozens to seek justice for
offenses committed as far back as 57 years ago, and as recent as three
By Thursday, more than 140 plaintiffs had filed more than 170 civil
lawsuits under the 2007 Child Victim's Act, which eliminated the civil
statute of limitations for child sexual abuse and opened a two-year
"window," during which cases that would have been barred by a time
limit could be filed.
The window closed Thursday, two years to the day Gov. Ruth Ann Minner
signed the law passed unanimously by the Legislature. The window was
twice the length of a similar provision made in California courts.
The majority of cases named a Catholic priest as the perpetrator and
his superiors -- bishops and provincials -- as accomplices who quietly
moved the offender, often first to treatment facilities and then to
The Delaware law was triggered by the scandal that emerged nationally
in 2002 in the Catholic church, where the pattern of abuse and quiet
transfer was exposed in a Boston Globe investigation, by the 2006
arrest of a retired Wilmington priest in Syracuse, and the subsequent
response of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, which divulged the
names of 20 diocesan priests against whom credible claims of child
abuse had been made.
None of the religious orders ministering within the Diocese of
Wilmington has released such a list. Instead, more than a dozen
priests serving with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the
Norbertine Fathers and the Capuchin friars have been named in suits.
But no person or group has the corner on this sort of crime. Cases
emerged against teachers in Protestant churches, public and private
schools, Boy Scout leaders, neighbors and family members, a judge and
Most cases have been filed anonymously, with notations that the
plaintiffs fear public humiliation when their experiences are made
Six plaintiffs -- including the nephew of a bishop -- on Thursday
joined Wilmington attorneys Tom Neuberger and Tom Crumplar to publicly
thank Delaware lawmakers for giving them a day in court, a way to tell
their stories and what officials knew. Neuberger's firm filed about 75
percent of the cases.
Raymond Donahue, 54-year-old son of a Wilmington police captain, said
he was 12 when the late Rev. Leonard Mackiewicz took him to his
mother's house in Sussex County in the fall of 1967, raped him
repeatedly and then performed Mass in the garage. He referred to a
letter produced by the Diocese of Wilmington when it turned over
Mackiewicz's personnel file. The letter was sent in May 1967 from the
Rev. Edward Leinheiser, pastor of Holy Rosary parish in Claymont to
then-Bishop Michael Hyle, begging the bishop to confront the priest,
who was "openly defying me" by taking young boys to his rectory bedroom.
"Instead of firing Father Mackiewicz, the bishop transferred him to
St. Thomas, where we met," said Donahue, who reported the assault to
church officials in the 1980's and in 1994 told his story to an area
newspaper. "Without our General Assembly, this secret document would
have remained hidden forever. Because of our General Assembly, I have
learned that I did not have to suffer and neither did so many other
young boys and girls."
Mackiewicz was named by 13 plaintiffs, including three women. Former
priest Francis G. DeLuca, who pleaded guilty to similar charges in
Syracuse, N.Y., two years ago, has been named by 21 victims. And the
Rev. Dennis Killion of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales has been
named in more than a dozen cases.
Many church records produced already have been sealed by the courts,
attorneys said. And, experts say, many other victims probably could
never muster the courage to sue -- even anonymously.
"I think it is the tip of the iceberg," said Dana Harrington Conner,
associate professor at Widener School of Law, who specializes in
domestic violence cases. "You've got to understand -- whether it's
against a priest or even more, a family member -- it's very difficult
to make that choice to pursue that action."
Peterson proud of Del. law
Momentum for the Delaware law started after the scandal emerged
nationally in 2002. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ordered
new policies -- including the end to confidentiality agreements,
stronger regulations in youth ministry, criminal background checks,
and immediate removal of the accused from ministry. It also surveyed
dioceses to get an accounting for what had happened. In January 2004,
the Diocese of Wilmington reported complaints from about 60 people
against 19 priests, covering a span of about 50 years.
The Delaware law was sponsored by state Sen. Karen Peterson, D-
Stanton, with a groundswell of support from citizens and advocacy
groups, including the lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful and the
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
"It was a huge accomplishment in terms of getting justice for the
victims," Peterson said, "and we're one of the few states able to
At least 10 cases have been filed against public schools and the
state, cases that will test the claim of state Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-
Sharpley, that the law does not provide equal justice for victims of
state employees. He plans to continue to introduce legislation to
clarify that the law applies to the state, too.
The number of cases filed since the 2007 law surprised many, including
Tony Flynn, attorney for the diocese, who has worked full-time on
them. Based on attorneys' estimates earlier this year, the diocese
expected 75 to 80 cases. Scores were filed in the last month.
"The mountain to climb now is much bigger," Flynn said.
The Rev. Kevin Nadolski, spokesman for the Oblates of St. Francis de
Sales, agreed that the number of cases filed was disturbing. More than
30 have been filed against the Oblates, including two former
principals of their flagship Salesianum School.
"The sheer number is gravely disappointing," Nadolski said. "Whether
the allegations are true or not, one thing that is clear is that
people are suffering. We have a responsibility to respond to that
suffering and pain."
Nadolski said the order recognizes a need to build a culture of trust
"that apparently wasn't there." And he said the priests feel
"tremendously sad" that some of their brothers may have hurt children.
"It's really impressive how powerful this act is at finally getting
the truth out and helping some people who got really hurt as
children," said attorney Mike Reck, whose San Diego-based firm Manly &
Stewart has worked with Wilmington attorney Bartholomew Dalton on
about 50 cases.
Litigation has made it difficult for the diocese to deal with the
victims "as victims," though, Flynn said.
"The ability of the diocese to deal with them pastorally has ended,"
he said. "We still are going to try to do it. A settlement is an
acknowledgement of the abuse and an effort to help the victim heal by
monetary compensation. But that is a one-shot deal."
Though the bishop has welcomed victims to meet with him, that hasn't
happened much, Flynn said, and "that is a disappointment."
Flynn believes a one-year window would have served everyone better.
Now some cases are proceeding, with the first trial dates in October,
and others have been put on hold, with the hope that mediation will
prevent the time and expense of full-course trials.
Neuberger says Bishop W. Francis Malooly, installed in 2008, has taken
a harder stance than recently retired Bishop Michael Saltarelli. But
Jeff Anderson, a Minneapolis-based attorney who has filed a couple
thousand such cases nationally and more than a dozen here through
Wilmington attorney Thomas Conaty, said Delaware bishops have treated
plaintiffs here "with dignity. They're not going to use all the legal
and unnecessary hardball tactics that might be available to them. They
will defend vigorously, but nothing untoward or inappropriate."
In a recent article in the diocese's weekly newspaper, The Dialog,
Malooly said diocesan officials expect settlement costs to top $9
Beyond the money, Anderson said the disclosures help to protect other
"The countless children whose lives have not been ruined by reason of
this wise public policy is really incalculable," he said. "You don't
know how many kids weren't abused. But you do know how many have come
forward and now feel like they have been given some hope legally."
Peterson said she is proud of what Delaware lawmakers made possible.
"It's worth it to the families that have been destroyed by the abuse,
to the family whose son committed suicide, to those who spent a
lifetime of bad marriages, unemployment, drug abuse, alcohol abuse --
all those things that relate directly back to the sexual abuse they
suffered as children. ...
"The Child Victim's Act was the best we could do to try to help people
put their lives back together."
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