Monday, November 21, 2005

 

Priest accused of sex abuse: Navy officer alleges molestation in ’80s while student


WILMINGTON, Delaware — A U.S. Navy commander filed a federal lawsuit Thursday alleging that he was sexually molested by a priest while attending a Claymont Catholic school in the 1980s and began pushing for legislation to extend the time limit for victims to bring civil suits in Delaware.

In a 23-page suit filed in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth J. Whitwell said the Rev. Edward J. Smith molested him during two ski trips to Killington, Vt., in 1984-85, when he was a student at Archmere Academy.

However, Mr. Whitwell said Thursday that the abuse went far beyond the two alleged incidents, lasting for nine years.

“I was a typical victim, a quiet, shy, 14-year-old freshman,” said Mr. Whitwell, wearing a Navy dress uniform with his wife Amy by his side.

“He carved me out of the pack, so to speak. He befriended me by paying attention to me. He was my religion teacher and befriended my family.”

Mr. Whitwell, 37, is a Naval healthcare administrator and optometrist at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va.

The allegation comes less than two years after the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington admitted to spending $1.6 million to settle sexual abuse lawsuits involving priests.

Mr. Whitwell’s attorney Thomas S. Neuberger called Father Smith a “renegade pedophile priest,” claiming that his religious order, the Norbertines, hid the priest in Maryland for two years after he allegedly molested a student at a Philadelphia high school in 1979.

The order then placed him at Archmere Academy in Claymont, where he became the campus minister, Mr. Neuberger said.

A phone message left for Father Smith Thursday afternoon at Immaculate Conception Priory in Middletown was not returned.

Vermont incidents

Although Mr. Whitwell said Father Smith abused him “weekly” for three years at the Claymont high school, Delaware law prevented him from suing for the alleged incidents because the statute of limitations had expired, Mr. Neuberger said.

The federal suit is limited to the two ski trips to Vermont because that state’s laws contain a broader statute of limitations.

According to court documents, Mr. Whitwell traveled to Vermont with Father Smith and a former Philadelphia student in the priest’s Mercury Cougar during the winters of 1984-85.

“Smith roomed on Friday and Saturday nights on each occasion with (Mr. Whitwell) and placed the other former student in a separate room for those nights,” the complaint states.

“On each of these four nights, Smith sexually molested (Mr. Whitwell) and committed various sexual crimes on him.”

Mr. Whitwell said the alleged molestation continued after he moved to Oregon.

“Finally, at 25 years old, (the alleged incidents) ended,” he said. “I suppressed it and moved on with my life.”

The alleged incidents scarred Mr. Whitwell, the suit states, citing difficulties that arose in his relationship with his wife.

Through counseling, Mr. Whitwell uncovered the memories of the alleged sexual abuse and connected them to the marital problems in 2003, the suit states.

Asked why he waited more than 20 years to file a complaint, a tearful Mr. Whitwell said, “I have two young boys and I’m trying to teach them to do the right thing, and that’s not always easy to do.”

The suit also names Archmere Academy, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli as defendants.

Archmere spokesman Thomas Mallon said Father Smith has been barred from the school campus since similar allegations surfaced in 2002 from the priest’s time at a Philadelphia high school 30 years ago.

“Since 1996, Father Smith has been assigned to the business office of the Immaculate Conception Priory,” Mr. Mallon said in a statement.

The priory moved from the Archmere campus to Middletown in 2002.

Diocese spokesman Robert G. Krebs would not comment on the suit but said Father Smith had not been active with the diocese of Wilmington “for some time.”

“He is not a diocesan priest,” Mr. Krebs said. “He doesn’t have (diocese permission) to function as a priest.”

Mr. Krebs said Father Smith is a member of the Norbertines, a religious order based in De Pere, Wis.

“They have their own structure,” said Mr. Krebs, adding that the diocese has no jurisdiction to discipline Father Smith.

Ongoing problem

In a January 2004 edition of The Dialog, the official diocesan newspaper, Bishop Saltarelli wrote that a review of diocesan records for the past 50 years revealed nearly 80 allegations of sexual abuse and a total of $1.6 million in settlements and victim assistance payments.

“My dear people, I am profoundly saddened to make this report to you,” Bishop Saltarelli wrote in the 2004 newsletter.

“I am disturbed and ashamed by the number of priests who were found to have abused minors in the past 50 years.”

Mr. Neuberger said Mr. Whitwell’s claims are another chapter in a “never-ending cover-up of crimes against children by (Father) Smith and the Roman Catholic Church.”

“There’s nothing changing in the Catholic Church,” he said. “He hasn’t been defrocked. They just move him around.”

Mr. Krebs said Thursday the bishop would not comment, but said the diocese treats sexual abuse allegations seriously.

“Sexual abuse by priests will remain a concern of the diocese,” he said. “We will continue to develop programs for priests and continue to offer outreach programs to victims, such as counseling and support groups.”

Six-year statute

Delaware law prevented Mr. Whitwell from listing any of the alleged incidents that happened in the state because the statute of limitations long has expired, Mr. Neuberger said.

“In Delaware, you have to sue within two years of the incident,” Mr. Neuberger said. “That means that if you were abused at age 2, you have to file a suit by the time you turn 4.”

The attorney said he and Mr. Whitwell began promoting a proposed bill Thursday that would expand the statute of limitations to six years from the time of the alleged act or when the victim discovered that a current injury or condition was caused by the alleged act.

The proposal is based on laws in Vermont and California.

“Vermont favors the victims,” Mr. Neuberger said.

That law allowed Mr. Whitwell to file the federal suit because he discovered the connection between his marital problems and the alleged molestation two years ago.

Mr. Neuberger would not say which legislators the two planned to approach for sponsorship.

House Majority Leader Rep. Wayne A. Smith, R-Wilmington, was not aware of the suit or proposed bill, but said it would be treated with respect if it comes to the General Assembly.

“I’m sure there will be some legislators very interested in this topic,” Rep. Smith said.

‘A black eye’

Lifelong Catholic Catherine McMillan said the allegations and the manner in which the church has handled the situation have left the church with “a black eye.”

“I certainly feel very sorry for all the good priests who continue to serve God,” said Ms. McMillan, 75, of Smyrna.

“I also feel bad that the hierarchy of the church hasn’t stepped up to the issue in years gone by. The hierarchy has let us down in that regard.”

While Ms. McMillan said she believes some victims might have misinterpreted an embrace or other physical contact, she acknowledged that there is a problem that must be addressed.

Ms. McMillan said any priest found guilty of abusing children should be punished in the same manner as any criminal and not be allowed to minister.


See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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