November 2, 2009 / 10:35 PM / 10 years ago

US abuse victims demand right to testify vs church

WILMINGTON, Del., Nov 2 (Reuters) - Victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Delaware will be “egregiously” harmed if they are unable to tell their stories in court, a lawyer for the alleged victims told a federal bankruptcy hearing on Monday.

The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington filed for bankruptcy last month, temporarily delaying eight civil trials that were about to start in sex-abuse lawsuits involving priests.

Bishop W. Francis Malooly has said bankruptcy, the seventh by a U.S. diocese, is the quickest way to resolve the 142 claims that stem from allegations of abuse beginning as far back as 1954.

While the diocese is bankrupt, its 58 parishes are not, and abuse victims want to pursue their lawsuits against them.

Attorneys for the diocese have said all civil trials must be delayed to prevent damages awards from the first few trials from wiping out the diocese, leaving nothing for other victims.

An attorney for the victims, Thomas Neuberger, tried to shift the focus from the impact the trials would have on the diocese to the harm that preventing them would have on the victims.

“We’ll prove individual survivors who have lived up to the present will be egregiously injured if they lose the right to take the stand and unburden themselves of the nightmare that has been plaguing them for up to 50 years,” he said.

A lawyer for the diocese said the victims have had their chance to tell their stories, including through depositions.

One victim, Michael Schulte, told the court through video testimony of the abuse he suffered as a child during an overnight stay in a Philadelphia hotel room in the 1960s with Francis DeLuca, a priest who has been defrocked.

After going to sleep in his own bed in pajamas packed by his mother, Schulte described through tears how he was awakened by a “sweaty” weight on his back.

“I just couldn’t get this person off me,” he said.

An expert witness for the victims told the court that denying the trials would prevent proper healing for the victims.

“It’s a way for them to validate that it did happen and it wasn’t their fault,” said Carol Tavani, a board-certified neuropsychiatrist. “No trial, no validation. No validation, no justice. That’s the process mentally.”

The case is: Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware, No. 09-13560. (Editing by Chris Wilson)

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