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  Academic Exile
N.Y. Professor's Past Comes Back with a Vengeance

By Ron Grossman
Chicago Tribune
December 22, 1993

New York - Dino Cinel, who was stripped of his title as distinguished professor of Italian-American studies at the City University of New York, recognizes that some chapters in his biography hardly match the public's image of a teacher.

"Don't get me wrong," said Cinel, 51. "I'm not proud of what I did."

Still, Cinel is adamant that his rights as a tenured professor were violated when CUNY barred him from his classroom a year and a half ago.

Cinel used to be both a history professor at Tulane University and a Catholic priest. He was also a home-movie buff who videotaped himself in sexual situations with "young men and some dogs," as one news report would put it. When those tapes were discovered in his room at a New Orleans rectory in 1988, Cinel was quickly ushered out of the ministry.

But it was done quietly, and Cinel, who subsequently married and has a daughter, remained on Tulane's faculty until being hired away by CUNY in 1991 and posted to its College of Staten Island branch. When he arrived in New York, CUNY's administrators put him on the banquet circuit. Leaders of the city's sizable Italian-American community lined up to have their pictures taken with Cinel, a noted scholar of immigration history.

A few months later, the story of Cinel's past sexual adventures broke in the media. TV crews descended on campus, newspapers ran banner headlines about the "Porn Prof," and the college's president sacked him.

Because he had tenure, Cinel remains on CUNY's payroll, assigned non-classroom (essentially make-work) duties while his case proceeds through the university's internal appeal process. The union representing CUNY's faculty, the Professional Staff Congress, has been fighting stubbornly on behalf of Cinel-and, more important, as Irwin Polishook, the union's president, sees it, on behalf of the principle of tenure.

Tenure is based on the assumption that the unfettered search for truth is the key to human progress; thus, professors must be guaranteed job security, no matter if their findings contradict received scholarly wisdom or their private lives offend community norms. In exceptional circumstances, a professor can be fired, but only after careful evaluation of the facts. Polishook says CUNY acted precipitously, noting that while Cinel faces several legal suits, his case has yet to be resolved in a court of law.

"It is the essence of McCarthyism to make accusations equivalent to conclusions, to make due process equivalent to public exposure, to make judges out of publicists," said Polishook, who considers Cinel's fate an important test of academic freedom.

Gary Raymond, a retired New Orleans police officer, sees the case differently. Raymond once was an investigator for the district attorney there and he continued to frequent the prosecutor's office after going into business as a private detective. In 1989, when church authorities turned over Cinel's 160 hours of videotapes to the district attorney, one of Raymond's buddies asked him to have a look, presumably because he'd handled sex-abuse cases during his police career.

"After watching 15 minutes of the tapes, I told the D.A.'s chief investigator: 'You've got one of the most dangerous pedophiles of all times walking the streets of our city,' " Raymond said. "Cinel is a predator who shouldn't have access to a classroom of impressionable young people."

Ever since, Raymond has doggedly pursued Cinel, and it has been in part his persistence that has landed the professor in academic limbo.

Very different foes

The two men, hunter and hunted, are vastly different types.

Cinel, who retains a slight Italian accent, states his case with quiet eloquence. He explains that when he was a teenager in Italy, his family enrolled him in a seminary, so he only belatedly realized that celibacy wasn't for him. Those videotapes, Cinel argues, represent a postponed adolescent search for sexual identity, which ended with him becoming a happily married man.

By contrast, Raymond's philosophy was shaped by decades of separating the law-abiding from the criminals. He pictures a world strictly divided into good guys and bad guys, and he speaks the unadorned language of the streets.

"Cinel likes to say I'm out to get him because I'm homophobic," Raymond said. "Well, 'homo' means man and 'phobic' means afraid of. I'm not afraid of any man."

Cinel won Round One of his encounter with Raymond.

When the district attorney's office investigated Cinel on suspicion of sex abuse, he offered a simple defense: The young men on the videotapes were of age (17 in Louisiana) and consenting sexual partners. He even supplied proof, obtaining affidavits to that effect from two former sexual partners. Accordingly, the prosecutor's chief investigator sent the D.A. a memo saying: "As a result of our investigation we determined that no violation of law occurred."

Still, the decision to close the case is a bit mysterious because, besides Cinel's home videos, commercially produced child pornography had also been found in his room at the rectory. Possession of child pornography is a crime in Louisiana.

Cinel says the district attorney's office had promised that he would be cleared of all potential charges if he proved the young men he'd filmed weren't minors. Raymond's theory is that the Catholic Church intervened, noting that Harry Connick, New Orleans' district attorney, belonged to the parish where Cinel lived during his priesthood days.

The archdiocese of New Orleans denies Raymond's allegations.

A civil suit

Either way, Cinel assumed the problem was behind him, not knowing Raymond had found Christopher Fontaine, one of Cinel's former sexual partners, and introduced him to an attorney in private practice. When that lawyer subsequently filed a civil suit on the young man's behalf against the Catholic Church and Cinel, the professor cried foul.

To Cinel, it is too much of a coincidence that the D.A.'s chief investigator was a lunch buddy of Raymond's and that the lawyer who filed the civil suit also once worked in the prosecutor's office. Cinel thinks those three cut a behind-the-scenes deal, hoping to mutually profit by dipping into the deep pockets of the church.

Raymond emphatically denies the allegation. He says he happened across Fontaine in a social situation and recognized him as one of the young men he'd seen in Cinel's videos. Outraged that the district attorney hadn't prosecuted Cinel, Raymond says, he put Fontaine in touch with an attorney.

"For me to accept a percentage of any civil suit would be unethical, immoral, illegal and probably some other things too," Raymond said. "I'm a private investigator. I get $40 a hour, any case I work on. That's my fee to the attorney handling Chris Fontaine's suit. You want to hire me? The queen of England? The fee is the same."

A donation of evidence

Cinel said that his academic career would not be in jeopardy except for a remarkable and, he thinks, inequitable circumstance: When his case moved from the prosecutor's office to that of a private attorney, it came accompanied by a full set of supporting materials.

The district attorney's office gave Cinel's videotapes to Raymond so he could make copies for the lawyers representing Fontaine. The D.A.'s chief investigator, George Tolar, even turned over notes made during his investigation. That outraged Judge Frank Marullo when Tolar subsequently was called to the witness stand during Cinel's criminal trial on charges of possession of child pornography. The judge dismissed the charges.

"So, Officer Tolar, you've been around here a long time; it seems to be quite unusual that evidence that is now the essence of a prosecution was given away," the judge said. "I don't know of any other time that something like that would happen."

Similarly, Fontaine's civil suit (and one filed on behalf of Ronald Tichenor, another of Cinel's former partners whom Raymond tracked down) had some problems. The plaintiffs had already given affidavits essentially absolving Cinel. Also, neither was a member of the parish where Cinel lived. Cinel said he picked them up in bars in the French Quarter. So it wouldn't be easy to prove he'd abused his clerical authority and seduced them.

To buttress the case, the attorney sent Fontaine to a psychologist, but that didn't help much. The psychologist did say Fontaine felt betrayed because Cinel had sold photos of the young man to a Danish pornographic magazine. But his report also noted that Fontaine "was very much in love with this clergyman and the affair was consensual."

When Cinel was being wooed by CUNY in 1990, he said, it looked as though his legal problems would soon be resolved.

"I spoke with the attorney for the church," Cinel said. "He said, 'This case is never going to trial.' "

Raymond, though, found a way to get it into court, via the court of public opinion. In the spring of 1991, he copied Cinel's homemade videotapes and gave them to Richard Angelico, a reporter for WSDU-TV in New Orleans. With that material, Angelico prepared a series on clerical abuse.

"The evening it was to run, Angelico phoned me," Raymond said. "He said: 'You're not going to believe this. The station just yanked my series.' Evidently, management got cold feet."

Trial by media

But Hugh Aynesworth, a Dallas-based free-lance writer, heard the New Orleans media was sitting on a juicy story involving a priest and sex. So he met with Raymond, and broke Cinel's saga in the Washington Times newspaper on May 14, 1991.

"I can't say who tipped me," Aynesworth said. "I've got lots of friends in New Orleans."

Aynesworth's story triggered a domino effect: Angelico's series got air time. The story was picked up by the media in New York, where Cinel had recently moved. Two weeks later, his new boss, Edmond Volpe, president of Staten Island College, sent Cinel a letter saying he was fired.

"Volpe was in a state of shock," said a CUNY professor who urged the president to avoid a hasty decision. "He was dead set against Cinel."

The media blitz also prompted Connick, New Orleans' district attorney, to reverse his ground, and in 1991 Cinel was charged with possession of commercially produced child pornography.

Indeed, from then on, Cinel has spent a lot of time in Louisiana courtrooms. The criminal charges against him were thrown out by one judge, then reinstated on appeal. Various issues concerning the civil suits have also been heard by appellate courts, but the cases are still pending.

Cinel himself sued the TV reporter and his station, Raymond the detective, the New Orleans prosecutor and his subordinates, alleging they conspired to invade his privacy. He similarly sued Tribune Entertainment, alleging that Geraldo Rivera, who also reported on the case, had similarly violated Cinel's rights. Cinel lost those suits, which he is now appealing.

Colleagues question firing

Meanwhile, hidden amid all those legal briefs is the issue of Cinel's professorial career, which has yet to be finally resolved. Cinel says he has been in academic exile, at first told to read manuscripts for a proposed CUNY press that never materialized. Now he has been assigned equally nebulous duties in a windowless office far from campus.

Some of his colleagues believe that Cinel's past, while clearly marking him as unfit for the priesthood, shouldn't be a test of his capacity to serve as a scholar and teacher.

Last April, four members of the history department sent a letter to the university's vice chancellor for legal affairs.

"We are troubled that the University has pursued a case based on questionable grounds," they wrote. "The specified charges lodged against Professor Cinel refer to alleged acts and behavior which occured prior to his appointment at the College."

Raymond, as might be expected, vigorously opposes that forgive-and-forget approach.

"I gleaned nine minutes out of the 160 hours of Cinel's videotapes, and I'll show them to anyone," Raymond said. "And I'll bet they'll say: 'That man should be prosecuted for something, even if it's just spitting on the street.' "

 
 

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