Posted on Apr 01, 2007
Man abused by priest wins $41 million jury award
Navy officer from Delaware was molested as teen by clergyman
By Randall Chase
The Associated Press
Originally published March 30, 2007, 6:32 PM EDT
WILMINGTON, Del. // A federal jury today awarded $41 million to a Navy officer who as a teenager was repeatedly sexually abused by a priest.
The jury deliberated for about two hours in deciding to award Navy Cmdr. Kenneth Whitwell, 39, $6 million in compensatory damages and $35 million in punitive damages.
Whitwell bowed his head and wiped his eyes as the verdict was read. His wife, Amy, wept softly.
Whitwell won a default judgment against the Rev. Edward J. Smith in January after Smith failed to respond to the federal lawsuit. Smith, who can not be prosecuted criminally because the statute of limitations has expired, also declined to show up at this week's two-day hearing on damages.
The case marks the first time that a priest has been found liable in Delaware for child sexual abuse.
"I want to thank the judge and the jury for allowing me to expose the truth about matters which have been hidden away far too long, and for seeing that justice was done not only for me but also for the many other victims who have been denied their day in court by armies of lawyers and church bureaucrats who are more interested in cover-up than in protecting innocent children and revealing the truth of what happens behind closed doors at their church," Whitwell said.
"The jury heard evidence of the enablers, the numerous priests getting drunk and showing pornography to a shy 14-year-old boy, and their refusals to stop a pedophile priest from sleeping in the same bed with a 14-year-old boy," Whitwell said. "Many of these same people are still in educational leadership positions."
Smith did not return a telephone message left for him at the Norbertine Order priory in Middletown where he lives.
Whitwell claimed that he was sexually abused by Smith for several years while attending Archmere Academy, a Catholic high school in Claymont, 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 lawsuit focused on sexual abuse that occurred during two weekend ski trips to Vermont because Delaware's statute of limitations prevented Whitwell from suing for abuse that occurred here.
A bill awaiting action in the state Senate would repeal the statute of limitations for civil suits relating to child sexual abuse cases and would provide a two-year window in which victims of past abuse could bring lawsuits barred by the current statute.
Whitwell, a Navy optometrist stationed at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., testified Thursday that Smith raped and sodomized him more than 230 times. He said he 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 the 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.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson dismissed Archmere, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington and Bishop Michael Saltarelli as defendants in the lawsuit. Neuberger said he plans to appeal that ruling.
"Archmere Academy reiterates its sincere apology to Kenneth Whitwell for his abuse by Fr. Edward Smith, a former Archmere faculty member," the school said in a statement issued today by spokesman Tom Mallon. "Fr. Smith's abuse of Kenneth Whitwell while he was a student at Archmere is despicable. Archmere hopes that the trial, and the jury's verdict, lend some measure of comfort to Kenneth Whitwell and his family, as well as sending a clear message that sexual abuse of any child can never be tolerated."
The school said it was limited in what it could say about the case because of the possible appeal of its dismissal as a defendant.
"We can say that Archmere was not aware until 2004 that Fr. Smith reportedly had abused Kenneth Whitwell while he was a student at the school in the mid-1980s," the statement read.
In his closing argument, Whitwell attorney Thomas Neuberger urged the jury to send a message that child molesters will be held accountable.
"If you don't enforce the law against the high and the mighty, including religious officials, then no one is protected by the law," he said.
In urging the jury to award punitive damages, Neuberger noted Smith's assurances to his young victim that God approved of what they were doing, and his assurances to Whitwell's mother that God would not let anything happen to her son while he was with a priest.
"That doesn't come from God," the attorney said angrily. "That comes from the pit of hell."
According to Neuberger, Smith inherited money from his family and is independently wealthy.
"We expect that we will collect every penny that he has hidden away," he said.