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Man Sues Church Alleging Abuse By Retired N.C. Priest

Jan 8, 2004 | AP

A man who alleges he was abused by a priest as a child filed suit Thursday against the now retired priest, a Catholic school, the Wilmington archdiocese, bishop and church officials.

Church officials covered up the abuse and assured the parents of Eric Eden that the priest, Father Jim O'Neill, would be sequestered in a monastery and not allowed to be near children. The attorney said Eden learned two years ago that O'Neill was serving in a Greensboro, N.C., parish and contacted the Delaware attorney General's office.

A spokesman for O'Neill's religious order, however, said Eden's family had kept in contact with the priest and knew where he was all along. The original complaint in the mid-1980s was about one incident and it was not until 2002 that Eden alleged abuse over a nine-year period, the spokesman said, adding that an offer by Neuberger to settle the matter quietly out of court was refused.

Delaware prosecutors did not file charges against the priest, but did contact officials in North Carolina, the attorney said.

In April, church officials in North Carolina said O'Neill, the pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Greensboro, N.C., for 11 years, had been relieved of his duties under a policy governing ministry-related sexual misconduct. O'Neill was removed from the post in response to an allegation of "inappropriate behavior" in another state, North Carolina church officials said at the time.

Eden, 35, was molested over a nine-year period beginning in 1976 when Eden was 8 years old.

O'Neill had been a teacher and administrator for 22 years in Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania before coming to Greensboro in 1991, North Carolina church officials said in April.

A spokesman for the diocese of Wilmington said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. O'Neill is a member of the Oblates of St. Francis De Sales.

The attorney said Eden is suing church officials for breach of contract, claiming they reneged on their promise to keep the priest away from other children. Neuberger said O'Neill is now believed to be living in a retirement center for priests in Maryland.

In a prepared statement, Eden said he was filing suit "because I want to ensure that no other child ... has to go through what I went through."

Kevin Feeley of Bellevue Communications, a Philadelphia public relations firm hired by the religious order, denied any conspiracy or coverup.

Feeley said Eden's family approached the order in the mid-1980s with an allegation of inappropriate conduct by O'Neill, who underweent a psychological examination and counseling by an independent psychologist in Wilmington and "was given a clean bill of health."

The spokesman, however, could not say immediately, however, whether O'Neill had confessed to any wrongdoing.

Feeley said Eden's family remained in contact with O'Neill for most of the past two decades, exchanging Christmas cards, greeting cards and even socializing on occasion.

The spokesman also said was not aware of any other allegations by anyone against O'Neill and that the original complaint was about one alleged incident, not abuse over a nine-year period as later claimed.

Officials at the order refused the meeting, which Feeley said is not allowed under new guidelines regarding such allegations.

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