Woman sues Catholic order in Delaware for child sex abuse on Maryland Eastern Shore

Alex Mann, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Religious News

BALTIMORE — A woman is suing the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, a Catholic order based in Delaware, for sexual abuse she says she suffered as a young girl at the hands of a priest on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Joyce Harper, 74, who now lives in Florida, alleges in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that Oblate priest George Mahoney, who has since died, sexually abused her and another girl after mass at Our Mother of Sorrows Church in Centerville more than 60 years ago.

In 1960, Mahoney invited Harper, who was 10, and three other girls to help him count the Sunday offering money, the complaint says. Mahoney allegedly took Harper and another girl to his room in the church rectory and sexually assaulted them, one at a time. According to the lawsuit, Mahoney told the girls, “If you tell anyone about this you will go to HELL.”

The Baltimore Sun does not name victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

“To this day I have flashbacks of the abuse I endured, and especially when I see a young girl,” Harper said in a statement, adding that she lost her faith. “After I grew up and left the Eastern Shore I never went to church on my own. I could not stand the mere sight of a priest and whenever I did I would have immediate flashbacks to evilness endured.”

Filed in Delaware Superior Court, Harper’s lawsuit cites Maryland’s Child Victims Act as legal authority.

Her attorney, Thomas Neuberger, described Harper as being relieved to be able to pursue the civil action because of Maryland’s law, given that she did not file suit when Delaware in 2007 passed a two-year window allowing for civil claims alleging decades old sexual abuse. He said she can sue in Delaware under “foreign law” because the Oblates are incorporated there.

Wilmington’s diocese declared bankruptcy in 2009, completing the case years later with a $77 million settlement to survivors and protection from further sex abuse lawsuits.

The Oblates joined the diocese’s bankruptcy case but were not protected from future claims, said Neuberger, who represented most of the survivors in that case.

Harper had no legal recourse until Maryland enacted its Child Victims Act in 2023. The law, which took effect Oct. 1, eliminated time limits for people sexually abused as children to sue the perpetrators and the institutions that enabled their torment.

“She was permanently injured,” Neuberger said. “She lived her whole life living with this over her head. The chance for justice is an answered prayer for her.”

Describing Mahoney as a serial child abuser, Harper’s lawsuit goes on to accuse officials in the Wilmington diocese with helping to cover up his actions, including the abuse of Harper when she reported Mahoney to a Catholic priest who, unknown to her, also abused children. The complaint charges negligence, assault and battery and fraud, among other claims.


Neither the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales nor a spokesperson for the Wilmington diocese returned messages Wednesday seeking comment.

Maryland’s attorney general’s office, which released a report last year detailing decades of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and other in the employ of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has pledged to continue investigating the scourge of clergy abuse in the dioceses of Wilmington, which covers Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and Washington, D.C., which is headquartered in Prince George’s County.

It’s unclear what will happen to Harper’s lawsuit in Delaware while the Child Victims Act faces numerous challenges in Maryland.

The Supreme Court of Maryland, the state’s highest court, is slated to hear several appeals questioning the act’s constitutionality.

The high court accepted a question from a federal judge presiding over a lawsuit brought under the Child Victims Act and agreed to hear appeals from state lawsuits citing the law in Harford and Prince George’s counties.

Faced with arguments challenging the Child Victims Act, Circuit Court judges in Harford and Prince George’s counties declared the law constitutional. A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge, however, found the law unconstitutional.

Oral arguments in the case sent by the federal judge are set for September, with several legal briefs due beforehand.

Neuberger said Delaware’s Supreme Court held that the two-year lookback window for child sex abuse lawsuits was constitutional.

The legal challenges to the Child Victims Act in Maryland come alongside the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s bankruptcy case. Citing the potential of hundreds of lawsuits, the diocese, America’s oldest, declared bankruptcy two days before the law took effect. The deadline for survivors to file passed with hundreds filing in the case. The church and survivors have asked to go into mediation over the summer, while the exact number of claims is tallied.


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