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.

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."

Joe Piscatelli says he was abused by a Salesian 
priest as a 14-year-old boy.
James Sanders
Joe Piscatelli says he was abused by a Salesian priest as a 14-year-old boy.

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."

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