Four-Part Series: A TAINTED LEGACY
Third in a four-part series:
Abuse Was Common In Religious Orders
By Jeremy Herb and Rob Dennis
While the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland reached a $56.4 million global settlement in 2005 with the victims of childhood sexual abuse by its priests, one religious order opted for a different tactic.
The Salesians of St. John Bosco, whose Western Province is based in San Francisco, has been the most aggressive church group fighting lawsuits against its priests, said Rick Simons, a lawyer who handled many cases against the diocese and religious orders.
The order said one victim fabricated stories and had other cases dismissed — not because its priests didn’t commit abuse, but because the Salesians didn’t have “notice” of the abuse, Simons said.
For the order to be held liable in a civil trial, they had to know that abuse was occurring and not take preventive action, according to California law.
“They are far and away the worst,” Simons said of the Salesians. “They are the largest order, but they are also the absolute worst when it comes to taking responsibility for what happened in the past and for trying to locate and identify both perpetrators and victims. They have shown really no sense of responsibility for this issue at all.”
Salesian officials said in a statement that in the vast majority of cases, they were unaware of allegations against their priests and that the order has strict policies in place to ensure children in their care are safe.
Religious orders operating within the diocese, such as the Salesians, accounted for 40 of the 64 clergy members accused of abuse — more than 60 percent — a MediaNews examination of thousands of court documents has found. Two additional religious order priests were reported to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, but they could not be independently verified through court records.
These orders, operating independently from the diocese, saw the same widespread problems of abuse, denials and cover-ups that plagued the diocese itself.
In many cases, the orders were worse. Court records revealed:
Clergy members from 11 religious orders within the diocese were accused of abuse.
Salesian personnel files contained no record of complaints for multiple priests known to have committed abuse, including one convicted of a felony for child molestation.
The Salesians allowed one priest to continue working with children while his civil trial took place in 2006; he was removed after a jury awarded his accuser $600,000. The order also promoted and moved another priest in the 1970s after a complaint arose.
Another order, the Dominicans, simultaneously housed at one Oakland monastery seven priests known to have committed abuse.
Nine Salesian priests and brothers who served at Salesian High School in Richmond were accused of abuse. Six were accused at the school — the largest number at any school or parish in the diocese — and three at other locations outside the diocese.
The Salesian order “acknowledges that mistakes were made in the past in the handling of some individual cases and wishes that these isolated incidents could, and should, have been handled differently,” according to a statement released by the order.” These incidents have no relationship with the present or future of the Salesian Society or any of the schools associated with the Society.”
Religious orders are part of the Catholic Church family, but they operate independently. The orders within the Oakland Diocese that had priests accused of abuse — including the Salesians, Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Christian Brothers and six others — do not answer directly to the Bishop of Oakland, as diocesan priests do.
The religious orders have separate systems of governance. Nearly all order priests are supervised by a provincial office instead of the diocese. The orders also have national and international governance systems that are distinct from the larger Vatican hierarchy.
Because of this, some reforms made by the diocese weren’t implemented by the orders.
When Bishop Allen Vigneron held services from 2004 through 2006 apologizing for 12 priests within the diocese who had committed abuse, none of the orders’ accused priests or brothers was named.
“They (religious orders) did not give permission for their names to be used,” said the Rev. Mark Wiesner, a diocese spokesman. “Members of religious orders who have been accused are the responsibility of the religious order.”
Absence Of Information
When Joey Piscitelli began his freshman year at Salesian High in the early 1970s, he was befriended by the Rev. Stephen Whelan. But quickly, Whelan’s friendliness went too far, as the priest masturbated in front of Piscitelli and molested him several times at the Salesian Boys Club, Piscitelli testified in a court deposition and lawsuit.
Piscitelli sued the Salesians in 2003, but Whelan and Brother Sal Billante, who Piscitelli said watched once as Whelan masturbated, said Piscitelli made the whole story up. During the trial, Whelan remained an associate pastor at Saints Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco, celebrating Mass, helping at a boys and girls club and contributing to a weekly online column, “Ask the Fathers.”
Only after a jury awarded Piscitelli $600,000 in 2006 was Whelan removed from ministry. But the Salesians have appealed the case — one of the few in the diocese that went to trial — and it will be decided by the appellate court in the summer, Simons said.
While Piscitelli successfully sued the Salesians, two accusers of the Rev. Richard Presenti had their lawsuits dismissed.
Presenti worked in the infirmary at a Salesian boys camp in Middleton, attended by students from the Richmond high school. There, according to allegations in a lawsuit, Presenti masturbated and had oral sex with boys who stayed overnight in the infirmary.
That lawsuit and another naming Presenti — by accusers who said they were abused in 1962 and 1972 — were dismissed by a Los Angeles appeals court in January because the plaintiffs could not prove the Salesians knew Presenti posed a threat.
Presenti admitted in a 2005 deposition to molesting the accuser and two other boys between 1970 and 1973, though he denied the 1962 molestation, Simons said.
When the victim from 1972 complained to another priest at the camp shortly after the abuse occurred, the Rev. Harry Rasmussen, a priest in the Salesian provincial office, was called in to investigate, court records show. Rasmussen visited the victim’s family, who asked that Presenti be removed from Salesian High School, according to the records.
One year later, Presenti was transferred to St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower and promoted to school principal.
Rasmussen testified in a deposition that he didn’t tell anyone in Bellflower about the complaint against Presenti and that no record explaining the reasons for the move was placed in his personnel file.
“I’m not sure I knew it was a crime,” Rasmussen testified regarding the abuse.
Simons said the Salesians were able to hide behind a legal defense of “no notice” because no record of the child’s complaint or Rasmussen’s investigation was created.
“You have a guy like Father Presenti, who everyone agrees was the subject of a report in 1972, who everyone agrees had the order come out and inquire about it, and yet there isn’t so much as a handwritten note in his personnel file,” Simons said.
Salesians lawyer Steve McFeely said that the Salesians were simply following the law in fighting the cases because such notice was required for clergy lawsuits.
But Simons said the records kept by the Salesians were severely lacking.
“We don’t have any way to know whether that was because as a practice, at the time these events were occurring, they never put anything in writing, or whether it was because whatever was put in writing is gone or taken out,” Simons said. “But the absence of that information allowed the Salesian order to hide behind the legal defense of no notice.”
The Salesians said in a statement that they never shifted alleged abusers or tried to hide their actions and that they did not know about most cases of abuse. The order declined to comment on details of cases and refused requests for interviews with Salesian officials and accused priests.
‘Denial, Denial, Denial’
In the case of Billante, notice wasn’t an issue after a 181-count criminal indictment was filed against him in 2002. Police arrested the Salesian on suspicion of masturbating, orally copulating and sodomizing several children younger than 14 in San Francisco, but the charges were thrown out after the Supreme Court in 2003 overturned a California law extending the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.
According to Billante’s own estimate in a 2004 deposition, he had sexual relations with about 15 children during his time at Salesian High School and Corpus Christi in San Francisco. The police report on which his indictment was based said he molested at least 24.
In 1989, Billante was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for child molestation, serving four years at San Quentin before being released.
The Salesians settled two lawsuits involving three victims naming Billante, in which he was accused of taking pornographic photographs of boys, Simons said.
The Rev. Bernard Dabbene, who served as principal of Salesian High School in the late 1970s, was arrested in 2000 when he was found in a car in San Francisco with a 17-year-old boy, both with their pants unzipped, according to police reports.
In a plea deal, prosecutors dropped felony charges, and Dabbene pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor child molestation, on condition he undergo rehabilitation and register as a sex offender.
George Stein, who accused Dabbene of committing abuse in 1959 at what was then the Salesian seminary in Richmond, wrote a letter in 2003 to Dabbene and the Salesian provincial, the Rev. Nick Reina, asking for a letter of apology from Dabbene.
“I can truthfully say I have no recollection of ever having hurt you or others during my assignment at the seminary,” Dabbene wrote in response. “Nevertheless, I wish to sincerely and deeply apologize if I ever did anything to hurt you or anyone else.”
Michael Perry, who entered the Salesian seminary in the late 1950s but left before becoming a priest, said abuse was so widespread at Salesian High School that at a recent 40th high school reunion, nearly half of those attending who he talked to said they had been abused, including himself.
Perry filed a police report in 2002 against Brother John Vas and the Rev. Larry Lorenzoni in which he accused the priests of committing abuse at Salesian and a Watsonville seminary school. Charges were not filed against Vas or Lorenzoni because of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling.
Vas’ wife of 38 years, Edna, said in a phone interview that her husband “has said that these accusations, as far as he can remember, never took place.”
Perry, who now works as a sex therapist in Los Angeles, said he wasn’t interested in suing the order.
But he said he was troubled by the response he received from the Rev. Nick Reina, who was then superior at the Salesian provincial house.
Reina said in an email, “From my limited knowledge of the law concerning past abuses, I know that it had to be something that continued over time, that it involved some kind of penetration and another person who can either verify that it happened or another person to whom it happened.”
When Perry later offered to provide sex education for the order, something he’s professionally trained to do, he said the Salesians told him they were not interested.
“The Salesians are not terribly interested in fixing it. The core issue is their whole culture and being in denial about any sexual abuse at all,” Perry said. “Weeding out a couple of predators after the fact is not the answer. It’s all denial, denial, denial.”
St. Albert’s Priory
Other orders also had accused clergy serving in the diocese.
While no reports of abuse occurred at St. Albert’s Priory, an Oakland monastery run by the Dominican Order of Catholic Priests, seven priests accused of abuse were housed there in 2004.
In all, nine accused priests have served at St. Albert’s.
As first reported by ABC7 in 2004, the Dominicans moved abusive priests from the Western United States to St. Albert’s without telling neighbors or the schools nearby.
One former seminarian told ABC7 he was instructed in 2002 that “the young men training to be priests should tell no one” about the abusive priests coming to St. Albert’s.
Of the seven priests at St. Albert’s in 2004, only one had been accused of abuse within the diocese. The others were transferred in from Southern California, Oregon and Idaho.
“When we learned of an alleged instance of abuse, we took immediate steps to ensure that no children were in danger and undertook a thorough investigation to determine whether the allegation was credible,” the Western Dominican Provincial said in a statement after the ABC7 story.
Most of the priests accused of abuse arrived at St. Albert’s in 2003, according to ABC7. Several, such as the Rev. Terrence Reilly, who was called a “serial pedophile” in a Los Angeles lawsuit, had multiple complaints against them.
Roberto Bravo was a priest at St. Albert’s who had been accused of abuse at Antioch’s Holy Rosary parish. He was investigated in 1999 after reports of inappropriately touching six teenage girls, but the case was dropped when the girls refused to testify, according to ABC7. Bravo left the order and St. Albert’s in 2005.
The Rev. Leo Tubbs, who was accused of committing abuse to a teenage boy about 20 years ago, took an unauthorized, unaccompanied trip to Thailand, despite having restrictions placed on his movement while living at St. Albert’s, according to a statement released by the order.
The order said the abusive priests were placed in St. Albert’s because they wouldn’t have to interact with the public, and more than 40 Dominican priests lived there, providing the abusive priests with supervision and support, according to a Dominican news release.
A Dominican provincial official said the order is not discussing any issues of sexual abuse with the media and refused to comment for this story.
For the seven accused Franciscan priests, abuse was reported in other dioceses either before or after they served in the East Bay. Four served in Oakland at St. Elizabeth’s parish, which includes St. Elizabeth’s High School.
Three of the seven Franciscans — the Revs. Chris Berbena, Mario Cimmarusti and Martin McKeon — were accused of abuse in Santa Barbara. Berbena and McKeon were part of a $28 million settlement, which included 25 victims and eight priests, reached by the Franciscans in Santa Barbara.
Berbena left the Franciscan order to become a diocesan priest in 1997. Last month, the Diocese of Oakland returned him to active ministry after a review board determined the single accusation against him in Santa Barbara could not be substantiated.
In Tigard, Oregon, the Rev. Melvin Bucher failed a lie detector test in 1993 about having sex with minors, according to the Oregonian newspaper. Bucher was sued in 1994, but the case was not settled until it was about to go to trial in 2001, just a year before the priest scandal broke in Boston.
Bucher came to St. Elizabeth in 1974, five years after he left Tigard, according to church records.
The Franciscans also had priests accused of abuse in Idaho, Arizona and Portland, Oregon, who served in Diocese of Oakland parishes, according to court and church records.
Eight other religious orders each had at least one priest accused of abuse serving in the Oakland Diocese.
At De La Salle High School in Concord, three Christian Brothers were accused of abuse. The order reached a $6.3 million settlement in a 2004 case involving three victims and three brothers serving at De La Salle.
One victim said he was abused on a school-sanctioned ski trip, another said a counselor abused him at a Napa retreat center, and a third said a counselor repeatedly abused him off campus.
The third victim, who said he was molested by Brother Joseph “Jesse” Gutierrez, was given $4 million in the settlement.
The Christian Brothers had transferred Gutierrez to Concord from Berkeley, where he’d had relationships with students that had “sexual overtones,” according to a 1968 memo by the order’s provincial, Brother Bertram Coleman.
A fourth Christian Brother, Brother Francis Verngren, was accused in a 2003 lawsuit of molesting a child more than three decades earlier at St. Mary’s High School in Berkeley, where Verngren had served as principal.
Simons said the Christian Brothers, unlike the Salesians, were quick to settle their cases and move forward.
“They recognized what had occurred and recognized something that should never occur again and took steps both within the administration and with victims to try and heal and prevent,” Simons said.
At Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, a man who is serving a 15-years-to-life prison sentence for murdering his wife in 1983 has accused two Congregation of Holy Cross clergy members of abuse.
David Dutra said he was abused by Brother Donald Eagleson and the Rev. Gordon Wilcox as a Moreau student in the early 1970s.
Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh came under fire in 2005 when it was revealed he had suspended Eagleson in 2002 after learning of the suspected abuse but didn’t tell the parish’s congregants, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Eagleson died of leukemia in 2004.
One other Holy Cross brother was accused of abuse: Brother Lawrence O’Brien, who served at Moreau in the 1970s and ’80s, was sued in 2004.
The lone Jesuit accused of abuse in the Diocese of Oakland was the Rev. Jerold Lindner, who was named in a 2003 lawsuit by a girl who said he molested her at Corpus Christi in Piedmont while he was serving at St. Ignatius Prep School in San Francisco.
The lawsuit contends that from the 1950s to the 1980s, Lindner “abused and molested his 5-year-old nephew in Arizona and Berkeley,” “sodomized and molested two brothers, ages 4 and 7,” “orally copulated and sodomized his 11-year-old nephew” and “molested three nieces.”
Lindner has been accused by 10 men and women in Southern California, Phoenix and the Bay Area, the Los Angeles Times reported. Lindner has denied the allegations, but he was part of a secret $625,000 settlement in 1997, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The son of a founding member of St. Alphonsus Liguori parish in San Leandro said he was sodomized when he was 5 years old by Redemptorist priest Cornelius Leehan. But when Russ Marley told his father he was abused, he was instructed to “tell no one,” Marley said in 2004, the year he sued the diocese.
Accused clergy members from four other orders — Society of Precious Blood, Society of the Divine Word, Society of Mary and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate — also served in the Diocese of Oakland.
When Piscitelli’s lawsuit is resolved later this year, his legal battle with the Salesians will end, but the Martinez resident plans to keep fighting.
Piscitelli is the director of the Northern California office of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support and advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse.
He said victims of sexual abuse continue to come forward, and he wants to continue to help them.
On Feb. 28, Piscitelli held a news conference with a woman who says she is a victim of Brother John Vas. Rose Harper, 54, contacted Piscitelli after seeing news stories about the Presenti lawsuits.
Harper said Vas molested her at the school when her brother was a student. Her parents volunteered at the school and took her along, and Vas “would just follow me,” she said.
Edna Vas said her husband has no recollection of Harper’s allegation.
“Victims are constantly coming forward — slowly,” Piscitelli said. “I’m seeing that when there is publicity, and they read books and newspaper articles, there’s people who are ready to come out who were molested 25 years ago. The average person who was molested, they get little reminders here or there, and they’re not ready to surface for years.”
In addition to his work with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Piscitelli is writing a book about his experience, “Destruction of a Catholic: My Battle with the Salesian Society and Cardinal Levada.”
Piscitelli said he has a nearly complete manuscript — all that’s left is the ending.
“The book would be incomplete” if it were published before the Salesians’ appeal is resolved, Piscitelli said. “If I win, it’ll lift a great burden. It’s like a David and Goliath thing. I beat the monster.”