Lawsuit Accuses Ex-Teacher of Sex Abuse
By Amy Driscoll
April 4, 2002
St. Petersburg -- Rick Gomez fought tears Wednesday as he recounted a year of sexual abuse he says he suffered at the hands of his spiritual advisor at a Catholic boarding school in Tampa in 1987.
He was in seventh grade, his mother was raising two boys alone and Gomez turned to the one man he thought he could trust: Brother William Burke, his teacher at Mary Help of Christians school.
"When I was at [the school], I didn't have a lot of male role models so . . ." -- Burke's voice broke, and he wiped his eyes -- ". . . so I looked to Brother Bill, who was one of the few people at that time that expressed an interest in me and made me feel good."
But Burke's interest in the boy disguised the calculations of a sexual predator, according to a lawsuit Gomez filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court Wednesday. Defendants include Burke; his religious order, the Salesians of Don Bosco; the diocese of St. Petersburg, which incorporates Tampa; and the Holy See, or Vatican. Damages were not specified.
According to the suit, Burke molested the boy in bed, during outdoor activities, in church facilities and in classrooms -- more than 30 episodes in all.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," Gomez said, his voice still shaky after a news conference where he repeatedly broke down. "It's something that has haunted me. If I said I didn't think about it at least every day of my life, I would be lying."
Now 28 and a computer software consultant living in California, Gomez said he is speaking publicly to prevent other children from being molested within the church. He said he believes one other boy at the school was being molested when he was there, and the lawsuit refers to another "victim of sexual abuse" by Burke who has entered into a secret settlement agreement with the church.
LATE AT NIGHT
The abuse started, Gomez said, with late-night molestations in the dorm.
"I would be woken up at 2 or 3 in the morning -- whenever it was convenient," Gomez said bitterly. "It was horrible. When you go to sleep at night, you're supposed to feel secure. He slept no more than 20 feet away from me in the dorm."
Gomez didn't tell anyone about the abuse until 1989, after he and his mother had moved to Easton, Md. His mother, Valerie -- who did not want her last name used -- said she enrolled her son at the school after working there herself as a secretary. She knew and trusted Burke, she said.
"All of the brothers and priests at the school were wonderful. I was very close to them," she said. "It was a double shock."
After her son's revelation, she called police in Maryland, she said. They videotaped her son's statement and sent it to law enforcement in Florida. But when Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputies went to the school to talk with Burke, they were told he wasn't there. And when they returned the next day, the suit says, they were told that Burke was gone for good.
Debbie Carter, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, confirmed that detectives investigated allegations of sexual abuse against Burke, but no charges were ever filed.
Carter said that in March 1989, the Easton, Md., police department forwarded a report that a student had been molested by Burke "between September 1986 and August 1987."
According to the police report: "The subject kissed the victim, touched his buttocks with his hands through his clothing and touched the victim in his [groin]."
Carter said officers were told Burke had gone to New Jersey, and the allegations were turned over to prosecutors who closed the case in September 1989.
Gomez's lawyer, Jeff Anderson, who has filed hundreds of sex-abuse cases against clergy, said Burke's abrupt move across state lines is part of a pattern in the Catholic church for handling problem priests.
Anderson contends in the Gomez suit -- and in another he filed Wednesday in federal court in Portland, Ore. -- that the church is under orders from "the highest levels" to keep records of such abuse quiet, protecting priests who molest by moving them across state or national boundaries when allegations surface.
In the Portland case, "John Doe" alleges that a now-deceased priest, Andrew Ronan, left a trail of sexually abused children from Ireland to Chicago and then Portland, where he molested John Doe at age 15. The Vatican is named as a defendant -- along with the archdiocese of Portland, the bishop of Chicago and Ronan's religious order, the Order of the Friar Servants of Mary -- because Anderson believes the church was aware of Ronan's sex-abuse past and moved him to cover it up.
Anderson said the Catholic church is so intent on keeping pedophile priests from the light of day that its bishops keep secret archives detailing sex abuse cases. The files, accessible only to the higher-ups, are deliberately kept from prosecutors and law enforcement.
A statement released by the Diocese of St. Petersburg Wednesday disavowed any responsibility for Burke or his actions, noting that the school is owned and operated by the Salesians of Don Bosco, not the diocese.
"The diocese has no authority over the daily operations of students or staff. The Salesian Society is an independent organization with schools throughout the United States," the statement said.
"The Diocese of St. Petersburg had no authority over William Burke and . . . for this reason the diocese feels it is not a proper party to this lawsuit."
Burke, who was ordained in 1993, was working as a priest as recently as two weeks ago, Anderson said. Church records show a William Burke at Marian Shrine and Don Bosco Retreat Center in Stony Point, N.Y. Anderson said Salesian officials have assured him Burke does not have any contact with children.
The Very Rev. James Heuser, vice provincial of the Salesian order, issued a statement Wednesday not addressing Burke directly but nonetheless apologizing.
"We are sorry for the sexual misconduct of some of our members, for the unspeakable violation of the young whom we have harmed rather than served. We express our profound apologies to the victims and to their families. They put their trust in us, and we have failed them grievously."
The statement also apologized for "any of our failures to adequately respond to allegations against some of our members. While we have generally sought to shield other young people from misconduct at the hands of accused Salesians, we have not always done so effectively."
Herald staff writers Lisa Arthur and Jay Weaver and Herald researcher Elisabeth Donovan contributed to this report.
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