Diocese settles sex abuse suit

Former Salesianum student gets compensation and apology

The News Journal, Delaware/May 16, 2008

The first Delaware lawsuit filed in the wake of the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal was settled out of court Thursday when Eric Eden, 40, of Wilmington, came to terms with the final defendants - the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington.

It was the diocese's third settlement since January, and at least the sixth since the abuse scandal emerged nationally in 2002.

Eden, whose 2004 Superior Court suit claimed he was abused over a nine-year period by the former principal of Salesianum School, came away from the settlement Thursday with an undisclosed sum, an apology and acknowledgement from the bishop, and a permanent revocation of the priest's authority to minister in the diocese.

Eden - formerly Eric Mazzetti - had claimed the diocese conspired to cover up his abuse by the Rev. James W. O'Neill, a priest with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales who was principal of Salesianum School from 1977-86.

Thursday, the diocese issued a statement that said Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli "apologizes to Eric Eden and acknowledges that Mr. Eden was sexually abused as a child by Oblate Fr. O'Neill. Bishop Saltarelli also apologizes to Mr. Eden's parents and expresses deepest regret for the abuse."

Eden expressed gratitude in a written statement released Thursday.

"I want to thank my wife for standing behind me over the last four long, difficult years," he said. "When no one first believed me, she did. I also thank Judge Calvin L. Scott Jr. and the Delaware Supreme Court. Justice is available in Delaware, even when it first looks hopeless. ... This is something for which I will be forever grateful."

In March, Eden settled with O'Neill, Salesianum and the Oblates. In that settlement, too, he received an undisclosed sum, a written apology, and the assurance that O'Neill would be barred from public ministry.

Since January, the diocese has settled with Navy Commander Kenneth Whitwell, who was awarded $450,000 in his case against the Rev. Edward Smith, former faculty member of Archmere Academy, and with Florida attorney Rob Quill, who received an undisclosed sum in his case against the Rev. Francis G. DeLuca, a diocesan priest.

"Sexual abuse of children is a reprehensible betrayal of trust, and it is particularly horrible when inflicted by a priest," diocese officials said in their statement. "The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington reaffirms its commitment to protecting children and young people entrusted to its care. The Catholic Diocese is proud of its successful safe environment program, 'For The Sake of God's Children,' but recognizes the need for constant vigilance. The Catholic Diocese renews its promise to continue to do its utmost to protect children."

Attorney Thomas S. Neuberger, whose firm represented Eden, Quill and Whitwell, said he now is in "active negotiations with Bishop Saltarelli for victims in over 17 cases."

Diocese attorney Tony Flynn said it would be "improper" for him to comment on any settlement negotiations. But, he said, the diocese is working hard to do what is right for victims of abuse that is substantiated.

"We're not interested in putting victims through the ringer at all," Flynn said. "We're trying to be very aggressive in settling these cases.

"We're trying to still act like a church even though we're in a lawsuit," Flynn said. "If this person has been harmed by one of our priests, we have an obligation to help them heal - including paying their claim. Fortunately, we have been able to do it in every case."

Neuberger said Saltarelli is "pioneering" in the way he is steering the diocese's response to abuse cases.

"He refuses to engage in the search-and-destroy, scorched-earth attacks on the victims of priests, which was the game plan in other parts of the country," Neuberger said.

Instead, Neuberger said, "Bishop Saltarelli has not just spoken words of healing, he has acted to give social justice to victims here in Delaware. When the Pope urged justice for the victims, Bishop Saltarelli was already doing so here in Delaware with his policy of monetary compensation for the victims. For that he should be commended."

According to the lawsuit, the abuse started in 1976, when Eden was 8 years old. The suit alleged O'Neill was at the Mazzetti home to tutor the boy, but instead would have the boy sit on his lap so he could fondle him. Eden alleges O'Neill also molested him during family vacations, at the priest's residence and in the school office.

Eden attended Salesianum for awhile, but graduated from Alexis I. du Pont High School.

O'Neill, meanwhile, went on to serve as principal of a Philadelphia Catholic school and pastor of a parish in North Carolina. He was removed from the pastorate when Eden told the Delaware Attorney General's office about the abuse in 2002, then became director of the Oblates' Chablais Mission Fund. He now is assigned to live at the Oblates' retirement facility in Childs, Md.

"Without this brave victim, this predator priest might still be in a parish today, or at least be relatively unknown as a child molester," said Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a national support group for victims of clergy abuse. "We are very grateful to Eric for his courage and compassion and believe all Delaware citizens should also be grateful."

Several other cases alleging childhood sexual abuse by priests are pending against the diocese, several parishes and area Catholic schools. The most recent case was filed last week by a Wilmington man who alleged he was abused by a Capuchin friar while a student at St. Edmond's Academy.

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