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Statute of limitations under scrutiny

By Beth Miller
The News Journal
December 16, 2006

Wilmington — Delaware’s civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse was in the crosshairs again Friday as two men who say they were sexually abused by priests at Catholic schools called for lawmakers to change the law.

The men, Eric Eden and Navy Cmdr. Kenneth Whitwell, and their attorney, Thomas S. Neuberger, held a news conference Friday morning to press lawmakers to give victims of abuse more than two years to sue.

On those points, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington agrees and also believes the statute should change, diocese attorney Tony Flynn said.

State Sen. Karen A. Peterson, D-Stanton, and Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, who sponsored legislation to change the law this year, said Friday they plan to do so again after the General Assembly reconvenes in January. The final version of the bill, granting victims 25 years after their 18th birthday, ran into a limitation of its own in Dover — the end of the legislative session.

But Eden and Whitwell also want to see people whose cases previously were blocked by the state’s two-year statute of limitations get their day in court, too. They believe lawmakers should allow a two-year window within which those barred cases could be filed.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said California lawmakers provided such a window in 2003.

“Several hundred predators were exposed and 800 to 900 lawsuits were filed,” he said. “As a result, kids are safer in California than in any other state in the Union.”

It will be a tougher battle here.

The original legislation filed last spring attempted to provide a two-year window. It failed for several reasons.

Flynn argued against the window for due process reasons, saying faded memories, the death of potential witnesses and the difficulty of locating records would make it extremely difficult for anyone to make their case.

Some lawmakers were scared by a fiscal note attached to the bill that estimated a two-year window for previously barred cases could cost the state $18 million in claims, Peterson said. Peterson then introduced a late amendment allowing the two-year window against only the alleged abuser, not against the state, church or any other employer.

Clohessy and Whitwell believe church officials often apply political pressure to prevent disclosure of hidden abuse and records of moving abusive priests from parish to parish.

“The original [Delaware] bill last year encountered an onslaught by lobbyists of the Catholic church who derailed it,” Whitwell said.

Flynn denies that. And Lavelle said he didn’t buckle under pressure from anyone — not the church, not Neuberger.

“The issue is much more complex than I imagined,” Lavelle said. “Time simply ran out.”

Attorney Thomas C. Crumplar said there is precedent in Delaware for allowing previously barred cases to be heard. He pointed to cases of veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

“It’s a remedial measure to correct a problem,” Crumplar said.

Much previously undisclosed information about clergy sexual abuse has been released in the past two months. After the October arrest of a former Delaware priest on child sexual-abuse charges in Syracuse, N.Y., Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli reversed a long-held policy and released the names of 20 accused priests. This month, the Capuchin Friars released the name of an accused priest after Sean Dougherty, who had settled with the order over his abuse allegations, said he would make the name public.

Dougherty could not find a Delaware attorney to take his case in 1994, so he turned to Illinois attorney Joseph Klest.

“For the most part, lawyers wouldn’t take these cases until they found a way to crack the statute of limitations,” Klest said. “The first crack in Illinois was in 1988, when a federal court said the law would recognize repressed memory as a way to toll the statute of limitations from the age of 20. If not for some cracks in the statutes of limitations, we still wouldn’t know about this.”

Experts say children who are sexually abused often do not know how to cope with the trauma — some repress the memory for decades; others never tell anyone.

Dougherty said people deserve to know the truth and he hopes efforts to change Delaware law will succeed.

“They’re not going to hush people up anymore — it’s over,” he said. “It’s time for the church to come forward with all the names, all the allegations and everything that they know.”

Eden said it’s important to speak up.

“If we keep telling our stories and we’re willing to be out there to go through this — it’s not easy,” said Eden, who alleges he was abused by the former principal of Salesianum School. “But it will keep it in people’s minds and hearts.”

Neuberger took Eden and Whitwell’s cases despite the abuses they allege occurred about 20 years ago.

A Superior Court judge ruled last week that Eden’s case would go to trial, persuaded by arguments that his ability to report much of the alleged abuse was lost to “traumatic amnesia.”

A federal judge last month dismissed most of Whitwell’s case against Archmere Academy because of the statute of limitations. Still alive in the case are the claims against the priest. The judge gave him until Jan. 30 to respond to the suit.

Contact Beth Miller at 324-2784 or bmiller@delawareonline.com.

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