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.

"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.

Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach is 
served by Salesian priests, including one current and 
one former associate pastor who have been accused 
of sexual misconduct.
James Sanders
Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach is served by Salesian priests, including one current and one former associate pastor who have been accused of sexual misconduct.
The Salesians of St. John Bosco provincial house at 
1100 Franklin St.
James Sanders
The Salesians of St. John Bosco provincial house at 1100 Franklin St.

"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."

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