SF Weekly | January 4, 2006
"Rarely if ever have there been so many accused priests clustered at the heart of a single religious order."
Top: St. Peter & St. Paul Catholic Church in North Beach, served by the Salesians, and where some of the order's priests have been accused of sexual misconduct. | James Sanders
Below: Salesians of St. John Bosco provincial house, 1100 Franklin Street. | James Sanders
House of the Accused
When priests within the Salesian order based in
San Francisco were accused of sex abuse, the leaders chose to keep quiet.
By Ron Russell
The Salesians of St. John Bosco is a Roman Catholic order of priests and lay brothers that prides itself on being "an international organization of men dedicated full time to the service of young people." Secured behind heavy iron gates, the center of its activities for the western United States is a three-story red brick "provincial house" at 1100 Franklin St., on the same hill as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption and around the corner from the offices of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
A block in the other direction is Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, with its nearly 1,200 high school students.
For decades, the Salesians have helped run parishes and schools at the city's landmark Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach, Corpus Christi Church in the Outer Mission, and Salesian High School in the East Bay.
But another distinction of the order's presence on Franklin Street is perhaps less well known: Five of the eight Salesians listed in a recent personnel directory as holding positions of responsibility at the provincial house are also accused child molesters. One of them, Father Bernard Dabbene, who once held a prominent post as former San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada's chief liaison to parishes in the archdiocese, is a convicted sex offender who struck a plea bargain with prosecutors to avoid going to jail.
The list does not include a defrocked former lay brother, Salvatore Billante, who served four years in prison for molesting a child and was later indicted on a whopping 181 counts of sex abuse. His post-prison charges were dropped in 2003 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law extending the statute of limitation for such crimes was unconstitutional.
"Rarely if ever have there been so many accused priests clustered at the heart of a single religious order," says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a victim advocate group. Although largely ignored by news media, SNAP's protests in recent months outside schools and churches run by the order, and in front of archdiocese headquarters, have sought to draw attention to what Clohessy claims is the Salesians' "abysmal record" in dealing with their accused clerics.
Father David Purdy, the superior at the provincial house -- the headquarters for the order's activities in the United States west of the Mississippi River -- vehemently disagrees, saying that the Salesians adhere to "a child safe policy" and that the order's priests and lay brothers do "exemplary work" ministering to young people. The order's attorney, Steve McFeely, likewise says that the Salesians have gotten a bum rap and that "a number" of the half-dozen or more lawsuits against the order stemming from alleged misconduct by clerics attached to the San Francisco provincial "have no merit."
Several of those lawsuits, including one involving allegations against an associate pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Church and another against a priest who once worked at the Vatican Press Office -- and both of whom have proclaimed their innocence -- are wending their way toward jury trials in Bay Area courts.
Regardless of how they are adjudicated, however, the cases involving these and other accused priests at the provincial house, as revealed by court documents and interviews with current and former Salesian officials and alleged victims, suggest an inability or unwillingness on the part of the order's leaders to fully investigate abuse cases brought to their attention.
For example, in one case involving Father Richard Presenti, court documents reveal that even after Presenti admitted to molesting a former student, neither Purdy nor his predecessor, Father Nick Reina, bothered to ask Presenti if he had ever abused anyone else. Three men have filed lawsuits claiming that Presenti abused them as teenagers. Although court records show that Presenti admitted in 2003 that he had molested one of the men, he remained the provincial's treasurer, entrusted with directing the order's financial affairs, until last July, when he stepped aside.
In the case of Dabbene, who pleaded guilty to child sex abuse and was given a suspended sentence in 2001, he was later restored to the Salesian community and placed in charge of keeping its archives, after being sent for treatment. But a former seminarian later came forward to say Dabbene had abused him in 1959, and says that -- despite the priest's career having flourished for four decades -- Salesian officials should have known about the abuse because he reported it personally to the order's superior at the time.
"It's sort of like cops gone bad," says attorney Rick Simons, who represents several plaintiffs claiming abuse at the hands of Salesian clerics. "There's a pattern of reluctance [by Salesian officials] to do anything that might harm a priest's career, irrespective of the effects on children and parishioners."
The last time Richard Gross recalls seeing Father Richard Presenti, he says, the priest was standing over his bed in church camp having just done something terrible to him. It was the summer of 1973, and Gross was a frightened 14-year-old boy with a fever, sent to the infirmary at Camp Salesian, a summer camp for boys from the Bay Area near Middletown in Lake County.
As Gross recalls -- or as he puts it, "will never forget" -- it was late at night, and he and another boy who was also ailing were asleep a few feet from each other, their beds separated by a hospital curtain. Presenti didn't turn on the light when he entered; he had a flashlight. At first Gross thought he was having a nightmare. He could hear the other boy whimpering. "It was like he was being terrorized but was too scared to scream," Gross says.
It was the same sensation Gross says he felt after Presenti pulled back the curtain and began touching him. He says the ordeal lasted only a few minutes, but seemed like an eternity. The priest, he says, moved methodically between the frightened boys, masturbating them, masturbating himself, and, ultimately, orally copulating them. "I froze. I was paralyzed. He took turns with us. First the other boy, then me, then back to the other one. This happened at least three or four times until he got the satisfaction he wanted. It was like looking evil in the face. He was in the dark, yet I knew exactly who he was."
The next morning, Gross told one of the Salesian brothers at the camp what had happened, and was taken home. The brother, in turn, blew the whistle on Presenti. A few days later, the superior from the Salesians' provincial house in San Francisco, Father Walter Rasmussen, showed up at the family's home in the East Bay community of Richmond to meet with Gross' devoutly Catholic parents. They were livid yet deferential, Gross says. "In those days, it never entered your mind to sue the church, not if you were a good Catholic, and my parents thought of themselves as good Catholics."
During the visit, he says, Rasmussen asked his parents what they wanted to see happen to Presenti. In lieu of reporting Presenti to the police, Gross says, his parents acceded to Rasmussen's suggestion to let the order handle the matter internally. He says they were persuaded by Rasmussen's assurances that Presenti would be committed to treatment for sex abuse and be kept away from children.
But that didn't happen.
That same year when Gross entered the ninth grade at Salesian High School, the school's finance director -- the same as the previous three years -- was none other than Presenti. Indeed, the next year Presenti was promoted to principal at St. John Bosco High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Bellflower, the largest of several secondary schools run by the Salesians in the western United States. After six years as principal, Presenti was moved back to San Francisco and named treasurer of the Salesian Society, the legal name for the Salesians' western provincial.
How an accused sex offender -- whose superiors acknowledged the credibility of allegations against him as far back as 1973 -- rose to a high station within the order with seeming impunity is something that Salesian officials aren't eager to talk about.
Presenti declined to discuss the allegations against him, saying, "It wouldn't be appropriate since those are matters under litigation." Efforts to reach Rasmussen were unsuccessful. Citing "respect for Father Presenti's privacy," Purdy, the current superior, declined to comment on Presenti or even to reveal what role he currently plays within the order, saying only that he is still "in the [Salesian] community." It was Reina, Purdy's predecessor, who revealed that Presenti continued to serve as the order's treasurer until last summer when he stepped down for health reasons.
Court documents suggest that while Presenti's superiors knew about the incident at the camp and considered the complaint credible, they were content to look the other way.
For example, in a deposition in connection with a civil lawsuit Gross has filed against the order, Rasmussen last October said that while he remembered going to the house to talk with Gross' parents, he made no notes of the meeting, didn't recall telling anyone else in the order about the allegation, and couldn't even recall how he first learned about it. Although he did remember confronting Presenti, Rasmussen said, he couldn't recall whether or not Presenti had admitted wrongdoing.
Rasmussen said that he recommended Presenti as principal at St. John Bosco in part because it was better "for everyone concerned," including Gross' family, that he move on. "I was very concerned about [the family]."
The former superior said in a court deposition that he didn't tell anyone in Bellflower that the new principal he was sending was accused of child molestation. Neither did he report the incident to law enforcement. When plaintiffs' attorney Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., asked, "You knew then that it was a crime also, did you not?" Rasmussen responded, "I'm not sure I knew it was a crime."
Reina's brush with the Presenti allegations came in the fall of 2002, after Gross' wife called to ask if the order could help provide financial help for her husband's treatment for depression, which Gross says the abuse triggered. Court records show that after speaking with Presenti, Reina concluded that Presenti had molested Gross. But in an interview, Reina says he didn't bother to ask Presenti if he had ever abused anyone else because his term as superior was nearing an end and he thought it better "to leave that to my successor."
In the summer of 2003, Purdy, upon succeeding Reina, met with Presenti after reviewing the personnel files of the priests under his command, and, according to court documents, Presenti told him that he had molested Gross. In his deposition last October, Purdy says that he notified Bishop John Wester of the San Francisco Archdiocese, who at the time served as Archbishop Levada's point man on sex abuse issues. Levada removed Presenti's privileges to perform priestly duties publicly within the archdiocese, although Presenti continued to conduct Mass within the Salesian community. Even so, the Salesians did not see fit to remove Presenti as treasurer.
And judging from Purdy's deposition testimony, the order's top official in San Francisco, like his predecessor, did nothing to determine whether there might be other sex complaints against Presenti.
In the deposition, Anderson, the plaintiffs' attorney, asked Purdy, "When he, that is, Presenti, confessed that he had abused Gross, did you ask him if he had abused any other youth while serving as a Salesian?"
"No, I didn't ask that question," Purdy said.
"And why not?"
"I don't know. I didn't ask him. I was just concerned about this [allegation]."
Within the Salesian order in San Francisco it would be difficult to find a priest who has enjoyed a more blue-ribbon career than Father Bernard Dabbene. In more than 30 years, Father Ben, as he is known, has held key positions of responsibility at numerous Salesian outposts on the West Coast. He was principal of Salesian High School; director of Don Bosco Tech, a high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Rosemead; and vice principal of St. Francis Central Coast High School in Watsonville.
Dabbene was pastor of San Francisco's Corpus Christi Church for six years until Levada picked him for top administrative posts in 1997. Besides making Dabbene liaison to the archdiocese's 89 parishes, with the title of vicar for pastoral ministry, Levada also appointed him to the archdiocesan board of education.
It was thus no small embarrassment when, in 2000, Dabbene was arrested for allegedly sexually molesting a 17-year-old boy in a parked car near the Mission Bay waterfront. The circumstances were about as humiliating as it gets. According to the police report, both the priest's and the boy's trousers were unsnapped and unzipped when a cop approached the car late at night and pointed a flashlight inside. When Dabbene was ordered out of the car, the police said, his pants fell to his ankles.
In a plea arrangement, prosecutors dropped two felony charges -- assault with intent to commit oral copulation and false imprisonment -- in return for Dabbene's pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor child molestation count. Sentenced to three years' probation, he was required to enter counseling, register as a sex offender, and stay away from children.
Levada quickly severed Dabbene's prominent role within the archdiocese. In 2001, after the plea bargain was executed, the order's superior, Reina, packed the errant priest off to St. John Vianney Center in suburban Philadelphia, where he underwent six months of sex abuse counseling.
Yet by Dabbene's own account in a deposition given to plaintiffs' attorneys three months ago, never in his more than 30 years as a priest did any of his superiors -- including Reina -- ever bother to ask him if he had engaged in sexual misconduct with anyone other than the boy he pleaded guilty to molesting. In an interview, Reina, who was superior from 1997 to 2003, tells SF Weekly that he saw no reason to question Dabbene about such matters, saying, "I concluded that if that was something he wanted to proffer, he could."
One person who wasn't scandalized by the arrest was George Stein, a former seminarian who says Dabbene molested him twice in 1959 when he was a ninth-grader at Salesian High School, where Dabbene, who had not yet been ordained as a priest, was a lay brother teaching history. Stein says he reported the abuse to the order's superior, the late Father Alfred Cogliandro, and that afterward Dabbene "left me alone."
It wasn't until 2002, however, that Stein says he had sufficiently gotten over the abuse and decided to come forward and relate to Salesian officials what had happened, although he assumed -- based on what he had told Cogliandro long ago -- that a report of the incidents was probably in the priest's personnel file. Stein, whose younger brother is a Salesian priest and who once had ambitions to be one himself, wasn't interested in suing the Salesians, and still isn't. "For the sake of others, I wanted to make sure that what happened to me was on the record. It was meant as a wake-up call for the order," he says.
Stein wrote to Reina informing him of the abuse allegation and received a cordial letter in response, with Reina assuring him that "all of us are trying to handle the situation in the best way we can ... to get the help we need so that no other incidents ever happen again." Reina arranged for professional counseling for Stein at the Salesians' expense.
Stein also wrote to Dabbene seeking an apology.
Stein says Dabbene's response was puzzling.
"I can truthfully say I have no recollection of ever having hurt you or others during my assignment at the [high school] for the school year 1959-60," Dabbene's letter began. "Nevertheless, I wish to sincerely and deeply apologize if I ever did anything to hurt you or anyone else. I apologize from the depth of my heart." He concluded, "George, please believe me when I say that I am truly sorry. I have gone for treatment and, thank God, feel I am a better person for it." Dabbene did not respond to interview requests for this article.
Meanwhile, an April 2003 note that Reina wrote to Dabbene -- a copy of which is contained in court records related to a lawsuit against the order by another alleged abuse victim -- suggests that Reina was as much concerned about his priest as with the priest's accuser. At the time, Dabbene was on leave from the provincial house and living with a relative. In passing along Stein's letter to Dabbene, Reina attached a note, saying, "I am not in a position to pass any judgment on the situation. It of course depends on the veracity of George's statements." He added, "If I can be of help, don't hesitate to contact me."
Such inability by the Salesians to get to the bottom of complaints against the alleged offenders in their midst has long rankled Michael Perry, a former Salesian brother who left the order after 11 years and who says he was sexually molested by two priests while a teenager.
"It's almost as if they have a 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy," says Perry, a sex therapist in Los Angeles, who is married and has two children. Like his friend Stein, he chose not to file a lawsuit against the order. But that hasn't kept him from being an outspoken critic of what he calls the Salesians' "especially insular" handling of abuse complaints. "They're asleep at the switch," he says.
Perry says he was abused repeatedly by a priest as a student at the junior seminary that later became Salesian High School when he attended there in 1959 and 1960. The next year, he transferred to the Salesians' newly opened high school in Watsonville, where he says Father Larry Lorenzoni, who now resides at the San Francisco provincial house, made unwanted advances, including fondling and kissing him, on several occasions.
Lorenzoni, who worked at the Vatican Press Office for four years in the 1990s, tells SF Weekly that he "never under any circumstances" touched Perry or anyone else inappropriately while a priest.
Perry's isn't the only accusation against Lorenzoni. Paul Clinton, a retired sheriff's deputy who lives in Montana, says that Lorenzoni molested him while he was a student at St. John Bosco in 1957 and 1958. He has sued the Salesians. Lorenzoni says he has no recollection of Clinton and called Clinton's accusation against him "absurd."
Perry says he realized that the Salesians "just didn't get it" after he brought his alleged abuse to the attention of Reina and got a "defensive" response. "First of all, I hope you realize, Michael, that I can't act on innuendos or perceptions," Reina replied in writing after Perry contacted him in 2002. "Let's put all the cards on the table. Let's clarify the agenda and let's talk about what you need or perceive that you need. Then we can talk about what the Salesians need," Reina wrote. Perry says he kept the letter as a reminder of how "out of touch" the order's officials have become with respect to the abuse problem.
Unlike Perry, Joe Piscatelli is among those suing the order for sex abuse he alleges was visited upon him by a former vice principal at Salesian High in the late 1960s. But Piscatelli took the additional step last year of passing out leaflets detailing his abuse in front of San Francisco's Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach, where his alleged abuser, Father Steve Whelan, is an associate pastor. Whelan, who has denied ever abusing Piscatelli, declined to comment, citing his attorney's advice.
Piscatelli, a building contractor who is married and has grown children, says that when he was 14 years old, Whelan molested him several times, including fondling his genitals after calling him to his office, and once forcing him to watch as the priest masturbated in front of him at a church-sponsored boys' club next to the school. On that occasion, Piscatelli contends that a Salesian brother, Salvatore Billante, "saw the whole thing and just watched like he was enjoying it."
In a court deposition last year, Billante said he had no recollection of such an event. In 1989, Billante pleaded guilty to felony child sex abuse charges in San Francisco and was sentenced to prison. He is the rare example of a Salesian cleric who was removed from the order, having been drummed out while serving four years in San Quentin Prison. A registered sex offender, he now lives in an apartment at the foot of Nob Hill, a few blocks from the provincial house.
Father John Malloy, the pastor at Saints Peter and Paul, who is Salesian, says that a private investigator hired by the order "thoroughly examined" Piscatelli's claims and found them to be "unsubstantiated. ... If they can't be substantiated, then he's innocent," Malloy says, referring to Whelan. As associate pastor, Whelan says Mass, helps out at a boys' and girls' club, as well as helps monitor the playground at the church's adjoining elementary school. He also contributes to an online column devoted to morals, ethics, and spirituality called "Ask the Fathers."
Asked about the procedures employed by the order to determine the credibility of sex abuse complaints, Purdy, the superior, says that the order has hired a private investigator whose findings are forwarded to the order's legal counsel, headed by Steve McFeely, who is defending the Salesians in the lawsuits involving priests associated with the order's San Francisco provincial.
Besides Whelan, Father Harold Danielson, another recent associate pastor at Saints Peter and Paul, and Brother Ernie Martinez, who until recently was listed as a member of the parish staff, and who lives at the provincial house, have also been accused in lawsuits of child sex abuse. They have all proclaimed their innocence.
Purdy says the Whelan and Danielson allegations were also investigated in 2004 by the Independent Review Board set up by Levada for the Archdiocese of San Francisco and that it corroborated the Salesians' findings that the claims against the men were "unsubstantiated."
But Jim Jenkins, a clinical psychologist and the former chairman of the review board, whose resignation from the board became effective in January 2005, disputes that claim. "The Whelan and Danielson cases did not come before our board while I was there," he says. "Besides, you have to be careful with a term such as 'unsubstantiated.' It shouldn't be confused with a finding of guilt or innocence. In these [civil] cases, that will be something for the courts to decide."
Among those watching to see how the various cases against the Salesian order are adjudicated will be Michael Perry, who, despite choosing not to press his own claims in court, says he knows firsthand the pain and suffering others have experienced.
That pain crystallized for him three years ago at a 40th anniversary reunion of his class at Salesian High School.
It was supposed to be a weekend for old friends to relive pleasant memories, with a barbecue dinner on Friday night, a prayer service before brunch the next morning, and, in the afternoon, a sit-down session around tables draped with white linen in a makeshift banquet room.
But it ended on a downer, he says.
"Of the 15 people who showed up, seven acknowledged that they had been sexually abused by Salesians during high school," Perry says. "It really made me wonder. It was a real eye-opener."