Ex-Student Sues Catholic School, Claims Sex Abuse

By Vanessa Gezari
St. Petersburg Times [Florida]
March 12, 2005

A 39-year-old South Florida man filed a lawsuit Friday alleging that he was sexually abused by a priest at Tampa's Mary Help of Christians School when he was a student there more than 20 years ago.

The suit is the fourth since 2002 accusing a priest or teacher at the school of sexually molesting a boy in his care. The school at 6400 East Chelsea St. is run by the Salesians of Don Bosco religious order, which is devoted to helping children, especially the poor and disadvantaged, according to its Web site.

In the suit, Peterson, who lives in Miami-Dade County, accuses Father Kevin O'Brien, a Catholic priest and former school principal, of sexually abusing him over a two-year period beginning in 1978 when Peterson was 12.

O'Brien would call Peterson into his office "under the guise of administering discipline" and order him to strip before spanking and fondling him, according to the suit. On some occasions, O'Brien told Peterson "not to disclose what had occurred between them to anyone because no one would believe him."

When Peterson told another priest at the school about the abuse, the priest "became overly interested in the sexual details of the abuse and took no action to protect Peterson," the suit states. "Instead, (the priest) bought Peterson a bus ticket back to Miami."

O'Brien is not named in the suit because he died in the 1980s. Instead, Peterson is suing the Salesian order, the Salesian Society of Florida and Mary Help school. He decided to take action after hearing the stories of victims of similar abuse across the country "and seeing it's time to come forward," said his lawyer Jeffrey M. Herman.

"I think it's really just another very sad case where you have a child who's vulnerable, away from the family, and the family put him in a place of trust with the school and with priests," Herman said. "It just violated this kid's trust. For him, it's like a murder of the soul. He becomes damaged goods. He never can recover. For him, it's all about minimizing the damage for the rest of his life."

Father James Heuser, provincial of the Salesians of Don Bosco, declined to comment on the suit, saying he had not seen it. But in general, he said, the order regrets any harm that comes to children in its care.

"This is our mission: to care for young people," he said. "We profoundly regret when young people in our care are victimized, and we apologize to victims and their families and attempt to make amends."

In 2002, Rick Gomez, then a 28-year-old former student, sued the Salesians of Don Bosco, the Vatican and the Catholic bishop for the Diocese of St. Petersburg over alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Father William Burke, a Salesian brother, when he was a student at Mary Help in the late 1980s.

Three other former students, known as John Doe 82A, 82B and 82C filed suits in 2003 and 2004 alleging they were molested by Father Terence O'Donnell in the early 1990s.

When Richard Peterson Jr. attended Mary Help, it was a boarding school for at-risk boys. It became coed in 2000 and has not housed residential students since 1996, said Father Bill Ferruzzi, the school's director. He says he doesn't know whether the scandal has affected enrollment.

"The majority of people are very supportive and say this was years ago, the school had a different structure," Ferruzzi said. Nevertheless, "this is a most serious problem," he said.

"Something like this is just really devastating to hear about anybody, and it's an embarrassment to the Catholic church and the Salesians," Ferruzzi said. "But I really can't comment any further."

Every year, Mary Help gives a student award named for O'Brien in recognition of outstanding leadership and service to the school.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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