Jury Hears of Abuse 35 Years Ago
Richmond: Lawyer for Salesian Characterizes Accusations against Priest Made by Former Student As 'Bizarre Tale'

By Bruce Gerstman
Contra Costa Times [Richmond CA]
July 8, 2006

Joseph Piscitelli was an altar boy who attended Mass nearly every Sunday growing up in Richmond. He found refuge in the Catholic Church.

On Friday, his attorney told a jury that a priest at Salesian High School sexually abused Piscitelli about 35 years ago.

"Joe has been betrayed," his attorney, Richard Simons, said in his opening statement. "The deepest loss to him is losing a place of refuge, a place of solace."

The abuse never happened, says the attorney representing the Salesian order. Piscitelli fabricated a tale. "This is a case of a troubled man who has wrongfully accused a priest of abuse," said Wayne Mason, a Texas-based attorney representing the Salesian order.

A Contra Costa County jury started hearing evidence Friday against the Salesian order stemming from a lawsuit Piscitelli filed in 2003. The Martinez resident alleges that Stephen Whelan molested him between 1969 and 1971 and the school failed to stop the abuse. He seeks unspecified damages.

The trial is the second of two in the past two months involving the same school. The Salesian order reached a $700,000 settlement with another man June 28 in Alameda County Superior Court while the jury was deliberating.

Piscitelli, now a coordinator for the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, started telling a therapist more than 10 years ago about the abuse, Simons said. He started telling his wife about 20 years ago.

"This is not one of those cases where somebody suddenly remembers they were abused 30 years ago," he said.

He claims the school knew about the abuse because he says Whelan masturbated in front of him and Sal Billante, a priest who directed the Boys Club attached to the school, Simons said. Billante went to prison for committing a lewd act on a child under 14 in San Francisco.

"It's not the kind of story you tell to make yourself look better," Simons said, as an assistant projected black and white photographs of Piscitelli as a boy, and Whelan as a priest.

Piscitelli's allegations are not credible, Mason said in his opening statement. He projected a slide that depicted pieces of a puzzle, each in different colors, labeled with names such as, "Friends," "Experts," and "Salesian." The shapes and grooves were jumbled.

"I submit to you that the bizarre tale told by Mr. Piscitelli doesn't fit together," Mason said.

Mason depicted Piscitelli as a man not distressed by a priest's abuse, but upset because of an abusive father, a family history of depression and a lawsuit with his father-in-law.

He showed a video of a previous deposition where the Piscitelli describes how Whelan groped him on a school stairway in the middle of the day. Piscitelli said he remembers screaming.

He showed the jury a photograph of the stairwell, pointing out its close proximity to the hallway. "Where are the witnesses? Where are the other students?" Mason asked.

Piscitelli never told school officials, Mason said. The attorney showed the jury a video clip of Piscitelli answering whether anyone at school knew of the abuse.

"I don't think so," Piscitelli replied.

Bruce Gerstman covers courts. Reach him at 925-952-2670 or at


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