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
San Francisco Weekly
January 5, 2006
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.
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.
[Photo by] James Sanders.
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
The Salesians of St. John Bosco provincial
house at 1100 Franklin St. [Photo by] James Sanders.
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
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.
Joe Piscatelli says he was abused
by a Salesian priest as a 14-year-old boy. [Photo by] James Sanders.
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
"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
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
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
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
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."