A Navy doctor who was awarded $41 million in a civil lawsuit against a pedophile priest has filed a second lawsuit against Roman Catholic officials.
Attorneys for Cmdr. Kenneth Whitwell, 39, of Quantico, Va., filed the lawsuit in Kent County (Delaware) Superior Court against the Norbertine religious order, Archmere Academy in Claymont, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, Bishop Michael Saltarelli, and the Rev. Edward Smith.
In March, a federal jury in Wilmington awarded Whitwell $6 million in compensatory damages and $35 million in punitive damages for four rapes by Smith during ski trips to Vermont. Whitwell was awarded a default judgment by the court after Smith failed to respond to the lawsuit.
Whitwell claimed that he was sexually abused by Smith for several years while attending Archmere, and that church officials did nothing to protect him. He alleged that Smith began molesting him in 1982, when he was a 14-year-old freshman and Smith was his religion teacher.
The federal lawsuit focused on sexual abuse on two weekend ski trips to Vermont because Delaware’s statute of limitations prevented Whitwell from suing for abuse that occurred in the state.
The lawsuit filed last Friday takes advantage of a new Delaware law allowing victims of child sexual abuse to seek damages for abuse that occurred years ago. The law, which took effect last month, abolishes Delaware’s two-year statute of limitations on personal injury lawsuits for victims of child sex abuse. It also allows a two-year “lookback” period during which lawsuits previously barred by the statute of limitations can be brought anew.
“Now that the Child Victims Act is the law, I have filed suit against those whose ‘I don’t care’ reckless attitude caused my rapes by a renegade priest,” Whitwell said. “I want them held fully accountable by a civil jury and punished for their role in my child abuse.”
Bob Krebs, a spokesman for the diocese, declined to comment. Officials at Archmere had no immediate comment. Kathleen Jennings, an attorney hired by Smith after the federal jury verdict, did not immediately return a telephone message.
While the federal lawsuit focused on the Vermont trips, the new lawsuit alleges that Smith abused Whitwell more than 230 times over a three-year period in Delaware and four other states.
Whitwell, a Navy optometrist, testified in the federal lawsuit that he had repressed any memory of his sexual abuse until 2000, when it surfaced unexpectedly during a heated argument with his wife, and that he did not realize until resuming therapy in 2003 that his emotional problems were caused by his childhood trauma.
According to that 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. After the lawsuit was filed, Archmere officials acknowledged that a complaint involving alleged sexual misconduct by Smith at the Neumann school was reported to the priory in 2002, and that Smith subsequently was banned from the Archmere campus.
“It’s time for the entire truth to come out; all the things they knew, all the things they did, and all the things they did not do,” Whitwell said.
While Archmere is located in Wilmington, Whitwell attorney Thomas Neuberger said the decision to file the lawsuit in Kent County was based partly on the fact that Dover Air Force Base offers a community accepting of the military, which could play in his client’s favor.
After Whitwell won the federal lawsuit, Neuberger asked a federal appeals court to overturn a judge’s earlier ruling dismissing Archmere, the diocese and Saltarelli as defendants. Neuberger said Friday that with passage of the new Delaware, he planned to drop the federal appeal because it is no longer needed.
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