Jury Grants $30M Award in Delaware Priest Abuse

A Delaware jury has awarded $30 million in damages to a man who claimed he was abused by a priest — a verdict that was exceptional for both the dollar value 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, Del.

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.

“It is far and away the largest single verdict in any clergy sex abuse case for compensatory damages,” said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who has represented more than 2,000 alleged victims. “This would be a new and unprecedented outcome that I have no doubt is much needed and well-deserved and hard-fought.”

In a statement, Vai thanked the jury and expressed gratitude that Delaware’s legal system “can render justice to all survivors of childhood sexual abuse.”

“Stunning testimony is coming out which exposes to the light of day the rampant sexual abuse of innocent children,” Vai said. “The cover-up continues and to this very day these churches refuse to accept responsibility for their actions.”

Bishop Francis Malooly of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington issued a statement apologizing to Vai for the abuse by DeLuca but said he was disappointed that the jury found St. Elizabeth’s liable.

“It is unfortunate that the parish community of St. Elizabeth’s is being made to pay for the criminal and sinful acts of someone who was assigned by the diocesan bishop at the time to be one of their priests,” Malooly said.

A judge ruled Nov. 15 that DeLuca was liable for the abuse but left the jury to decide the amount of damages. DeLuca was defrocked in 2008 after being convicted of repeatedly molesting his 18-year-old grandnephew in New York. The jury is expected to begin deliberating on punitive damages on Monday, so the amount of the total award could go up.

The Wilmington diocese is facing more than 100 priest abuse lawsuits and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year. A bankruptcy judge allowed Vai’s lawsuit to go forward with DeLuca and the parish as defendants, and DeLuca faces several more lawsuits, as do other parishes and former priests in the diocese.

Vai’s attorney, Thomas Neuberger, said he did not expect to be able to collect damages from DeLuca but said the parish has ample assets to be able to pay the award. Attorneys for the parish did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the verdict was a milestone because a jury found that culpability for abuse extended beyond a priest or his bishop.

“This jury’s saying no, it doesn’t matter if your title is bishop or pastor. If you knowingly put kids and keep kids in harm’s way, there’s a steep price to be paid,” Clohessy said.

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