Sex Claims Stun Westchester's Theater Community
But Former Salesian Accused in Suit Gets Words of Support
By Richard Liebson and Karen Pasternack
Journal News [Westchester County NY]
October 4, 2002
Friends of a Yonkers man active in local theater circles who was accused of sexually molesting three former students at a Salesian junior seminary in Orange County some 30 years ago say they are upset by the charges but remain in his corner.
George Puello, 56, a high-profile figure in Westchester theater, was a brother with the Society of Don Bosco, Order of Salesians, between 1969 and 1971, when the abuse was alleged to have occurred.
Puello is one of several defendants named in a lawsuit filed Sept. 5 in state Supreme Court by four former students who attended the junior seminary as teenagers.
Three of the plaintiffs claim that Puello assaulted them a number of times, often in their beds at the seminary. Other defendants named in the suit include the Roman Catholic order itself and two top officials of the Salesians' New Rochelle-based eastern U.S. province.
The suit claims that the order's hierarchy failed to protect those in its care. The Salesians' worldwide mission is to serve children in need.
Seth T. Taube, a lawyer for the Salesians, said last week that the statute of limitations had run out long ago, adding that the suit should be dismissed as untimely. Yesterday, he said Puello left the order "decades before the provincial of the Salesians learned of these allegations."
"We did not know where he was until recently," Taube said.
"(Puello) has worked for the theater in various capacities for over 20 years and continues to be supported by his colleagues," said a statement released yesterday by Bill Stutler and Bob Funking, owners of the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, where Puello is an associate producer.
"His main function is to work with charities and not-for-profit organizations to raise money through special events at the theater," the statement said. "This is a job that has been successful and brought tremendous results for those organizations. ... George is well-known throughout Westchester and is a respected, well-liked, contributing member of the community."
Stutler and Funking said Puello was on vacation. No one answered the door yesterday at his Oliver Avenue home. It was not known whether he had retained an attorney.
Puello has worked with community theaters and school drama groups throughout the region, including the Harrison school district, where two employees were recently fired after it was revealed they had criminal backgrounds.
School spokeswoman Dawn Dankner-Rosen said yesterday that Puello has been a theatrical consultant in Harrison and directed about 10 plays at Harrison High School, but was never employed by the district.
If the allegations are true, she said, "it's a very sad situation."
"A lot of districts are losing a good man," Dankner-Rosen said.
Friends described Puello as a talented, creative and caring person who frequently dressed in white as a tribute to his longtime companion, who died in 1995.
"I was stunned when I heard about this," said Donna Greene of Greenburgh, whose 13-year-old daughter, Serena Pomerantz, appeared in a Puello-directed production of "Children of Eden" two years ago. "I don't know what happened 30 years ago, but all of our dealings with him have been positive. He's great with kids."
Lu Gmoser, producer of the Asbury Summer Theatre in Tuckahoe since 1979, has known Puello for more than 10 years.
"He's very highly regarded in the community theater circuit," she said. "He's worked with Asbury several times, with good success. He's a creative, astute, helpful man, always very cooperative. I'm very sorry to hear about this."
Rose Crimonese Norton, director of the Mount Pleasant Community Theater for 32 years, said she's never heard anything negative about Puello's behavior.
"I'm deeply distressed over this whole mess," she said yesterday. "He's done 30 years of good deeds, as far as I'm concerned."
Those deeds include helping to organize a scheduled Nov. 25 variety show to raise money for a Cortlandt toddler in need of a liver transplant, participating in last year's Westchester Broadway Theatre "United We Stand" benefit show that raised more than $100,000 for World Trade Center relief efforts, and contributing his talents to numerous efforts to raise money for AIDS education programs.
Kaitlyn Delaney, an 18-year-old member of the Westchester Dreamcoats performing arts group, which Puello directs, said he has been a role model for her since she was 7.
"Even if he did make the mistake, he's such a good person now," she said during a telephone interview from her dorm room at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University, where she is a freshman studying musical theater.
"He's a great man," Delaney said. "I'll always love him, regardless of any circumstance."
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