Delaware diocese settles priest abuse claims for $77M

Delaware’s Catholic Diocese of Wilmington settled a lawsuit Wednesday with nearly 150 alleged victims of sexual abuse, awarding them more than $77 million, and the church agreed to fully disclose documents relating to the abuse.

The lawsuits claimed child sexual abuse by dozens of diocesan and religious order priests dating to the early 1960s.

Attorney Thomas Neuberger, who represented 99 of the 146 alleged victims, said they would each receive $530,000 on average.

Lawyers for the victims called the release of unredacted documents a historic step toward making sure it doesn’t happen again and promised to put them on the Internet.

“When people see the documents, they will be able to judge for themselves” how the church dealt with pedophile priests, attorney John Manly said.

Diocese attorney Anthony Flynn said church officials were pleased with the settlement.

“It’s been a long struggle, but we’ve finally reached agreement,” he said.

Delaware law created a two-year “lookback” window that allowed claims of abuse to be brought regardless of whether the statute of limitations had expired.

The abuse cases created a potential liability that drove the diocese to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009. At the time, it was the seventh U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy since allegations erupted years earlier against Catholic clergy in Boston. Numerous multimillion dollar settlements between alleged victims and dioceses across the country have been reached in the aftermath.

The Wilmington Diocese covers Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and serves about 230,000 Catholics.

The bankruptcy filing had delayed some trials, but Judge Christopher Sontchi ruled in August that lawsuits against several parishes could go forward.

On Dec. 1, a Delaware jury awarded $30 million in damages to a man who claimed he was abused by a priest — a verdict that was exceptional for both the 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.

Advocates for victims of clergy abuse said the value 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.

Manly said he thought December’s verdict played a role in the settlement. “The verdict made it very clear to diocese that things were going to get a lot worse,” he said.

The Associated Press typically does not name victims of sexual abuse, but Vai has spoken publicly about the allegations and testified at trial.

Neuberger told the Wilmington News Journal that each victim also would benefit in the future from any settlement or judgment from lawsuits filed against religious orders including the Oblates, Capucians and Norbertines.

He expects that will produce another $80 million for the victim trust.

The settlement still needs approval from the bankruptcy judge.

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