Troubled Order

Faced with lingering sex abuse complaints, the Salesians of St. John Bosco take their lumps in court

The Rev. Stephen Whelan is no longer dispensing spiritual advice over the Internet under the auspices of San Francisco's landmark Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach.

And he's no longer an associate pastor there.

Not since July, when a civil jury decided in favor of the man who accused Whelan of molesting him as a child while the popular priest was vice principal at Salesian High School in Richmond. The school is operated by the Salesians of St. John Bosco, an order of Roman Catholic priests whose headquarters for the western United States is in San Francisco.

But even though a jury decided in favor of plaintiff Joe Piscitelli, who accused Whelan of groping him as a teenager in the 1960s and masturbating in front of him while a Salesian brother watched, Whelan's longtime superior and pastor at Saints Peter and Paul, the Rev. John Malloy, remains resolute in defending him.

"If you're a priest, you can hardly get a fair trial with a jury today," says Malloy, referring to the 9-to-3 verdict by the Contra Costa County jury that awarded Piscitelli a $300,000 judgment. He calls the outcome "a travesty" and refers to Whelan — one of the few accused clergy sex abusers ever to come out on the losing end of a civil trial while still in active ministry — as "a martyr."

Piscitelli's lawyer, Rick Simons, meanwhile, sees it differently.

"They are the single most unrepentant, unremorseful, and dishonest religious group within the Catholic church that I've come across," he says.

Lawyers for the Salesians — whose appeal motions were rejected by the trial judge last month — haven't said whether the order plans to appeal the verdict to the state appeals court. Stephen McFeely, the order's chief attorney, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article. Meanwhile, Whelan has been removed from active ministry in keeping with the church's so-called "zero tolerance" sex abuse policy, adopted by U. S. bishops in 2002.

It has been a rough several months at the group's San Francisco provincial house. Besides the Whelan verdict, the Salesians shelled out $700,000 in June to settle another lawsuit brought by the accuser of a former teacher at Salesian High School. A dozen other lawsuits are pending in Southern California against members of the order, including several who — like Whelan — reside at the provincial house, around the corner from the offices of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

As revealed by SF Weekly in January, five of the eight Salesians who then were listed in a personnel directory as holding positions of responsibility at the provincial house were accused child molesters. The list included a priest who once served as former San Francisco Archbishop William Levada's chief liaison to parishes, and another who once worked in the Vatican press office. (Since then, the order has stopped publishing the names of individual priests in the directory, listing only departments.)

The order, which prides itself as "an international organization of men dedicated full time to the service of young people," helps run parishes and schools at Saints Peter and Paul, Corpus Christi Church in the Outer Mission, and Salesian High School. Most of the priests accused of sexual misconduct have, at various times, served in all three locations, as well as among the three high schools the order operates in the Los Angeles area.

As a result of the Weekly's investigation in January, influential supporters at the largest of the L.A.-area schools, St. John Bosco High in suburban Bellflower, were irate at not having been informed about allegations against Salesian personnel formerly assigned to the school and complained to the Rev. Richard Purdy, who heads the San Francisco provincial house, church sources say.

Purdy did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article. A spokesman with the San Francisco public relations firm that the order hired earlier this year to help polish its image confirms that Purdy met with a group from St. John Bosco, but characterized the meeting as routine. "Father Purdy regularly meets with the boards of schools and with school officials when there are issues of concern to the board," says Jason Barnett of Singer Associates, the PR firm.

The Whelan case, which an attorney for the Salesians had earlier derided as "without merit," was especially embarrassing for the order. Church officials had aggressively pushed back against the accusations while leaving Whelan in place at Saints Peter and Paul, where his duties included helping supervise students at the adjacent elementary school.

Whelan had also contributed to an online column devoted to morals, ethics, and spirituality called "Ask the Fathers." After the jury verdict was announced, that role quickly became a lightning rod for the order's critics. One poster to the Web site questioned why it wasn't until after the civil jury's decision that Whelan was removed as associate pastor.

"Why was he kept in place during his trial? Do the Salesians believe that their internal 'investigations' and findings carry more weight than courts of law?" asked the anonymous poster.

Responding online two days after the verdict, Malloy said that Whelan was still listed as an associate pastor on the Saints Peter and Paul Web site because the Webmaster hadn't yet had time to change the listing. As for his having been kept on as associate pastor during the three years after the allegations came to light, Malloy responded, "He was kept in place [as associate pastor] during the trial because a man is innocent until proven guilty."

 
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