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John Bisnar
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Jury awards $41 million in priest abuse suit

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A Delaware jury awarded $41 million Friday to a U.S. Navy officer who said a Roman Catholic priest sexually abused him hundreds of times as a teen, according to an Associated Press article posted on the New York Times’ Web site)

Jurors awarded Cmdr. Kenneth Whitwell $6 million in compensatory damages and $35 million in punitive damages. Whitwell, 39, claimed the Rev. Edward J. Smith raped and sodomized him more than 230 times over several years at Archmere Academy, and that church officials did nothing to stop it, the article said.

The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, Bishop Michael Saltarelli and the high school were dismissed from the lawsuit last year. However, Whitwell’s attorney says he plans to appeal that ruling. It is unclear how much Whitwell will be able to collect.

Whitwell won a default judgment against Smith in January after Smith failed to respond to the lawsuit. Smith cannot be prosecuted criminally because the statute of limitations has expired. Whitwell has been a public spokesperson for state legislation that would repeal the statute of limitations for lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse.

Whitwell, an optometrist stationed at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., said he repressed any memory of his sexual abuse until 2000, when it surfaced unexpectedly during a heated argument with his wife.

‘”Fr. Smith’s abuse of Kenneth Whitwell while he was a student at Archmere is despicable,'” the school said Friday in a news release iterating its apology but noting that the school did not learn of the allegations until 2004.

I seriously doubt that Mr. Whitwell will see any of that $41 million award. So if Whitwell won’t be collecting any money, why go through the effort? Maybe for moral reasons. Maybe so that what happened to him could be made public, the perpetrator known and publicly found financially responsible for the harm caused. Money wasn’t going to have as much impact on Whitwell’s quality of life as a victory in court and a financial judgment.

Making the Catholic Church and the public in general aware of what happened is one of the best ways to prevent it from happening again. We are more aware. We are more watchful because of Mr. Whitwell’s lawsuit.

If you have been a victim of clergy abuse? You want something done about it? I would. Call me.