Priest abuse victims group takes aim at Mater Dei over alleged hazing

Los Angeles Times

January 7, 2022

By Laura J. Nelson, Connor Sheets, and Hannah Fry

In an effort to bring deeper scrutiny to Mater Dei High School, an advocacy group for survivors of Catholic Church abuse has filed three complaints with government and church officials over allegations of hazing involving the school’s powerhouse football team.

The complaints, filed this week by a New Jersey leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, are an attempt to ensure that organizations other than the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange investigate a report of hazing at the private high school in Orange County.

A lawsuit filed in November against the school and the diocese alleges that a Mater Dei football player sustained a traumatic brain injury in a violent hazing ritual in the varsity locker room and that the school tried to cover up his injuries.

The complaints were filed with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the California commission that licenses teachers. Each is designed to push reform and outside scrutiny of the school, said John Bellocchio, the New Jersey state co-director for SNAP, who filed the complaints.

“We want to see a fix in the culture,” Bellocchio said. “We don’t want to see this happen again.”

In a statement,Tracey Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Orange questioned SNAP’s involvement, saying the diocese “does not give credence to Mr. Bellocchio’s misguided assertions.” Bellocchio “has no personal knowledge of any of the alleged events he describes,” she said.

Founded in 1989, SNAP is known for its sometimes aggressive, in-your-face approach to advocating for people abused by clergy. Through PR campaigns, lobbying efforts and legal and investigative action, the nonprofit aims to expose sex abuse and gain redress for victims.

Bellocchio, 40, is a former Catholic schoolteacher and principal. He accused former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of raping him while he was a teenager. McCarrick, now 91, was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2019. Months later, Francis issued a new church law requiring dioceses to create a system to receive and address claims of abuse and related misconduct.

Bellocchio said he filed a complaint this week with the abuse reporting system set up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to comply with that rule. He wrote that he did not intend to attack Bishop of Orange Kevin Vann, but instead to “call immediate attention to a culture of bullying and hazing” at a school in his diocese.

Vann should “clean house, all the way down to the coach,” Bellocchio said. “If he doesn’t, he’s afraid of his donors and isn’t doing his job.”

SNAP’s involvement follows weeks of controversy over the hazing lawsuit, filed by the parents of a former football player.

The complaint described an interaction called “Bodies,” in which two players punch each other between the shoulders and the waist. The student agreed to fight a player 50 pounds heavier in an “effort to fit in and show he was tough enough,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit alleged that school administrators tried to cover up his injuries by not calling paramedics and not contacting his family for 90 minutes.

SNAP has intervened because “abuse and bullying and bad culture don’t stop at the state line,” Bellocchio said. “People around the country are watching and willing to help hold the people in charge to account.”

School President Walter Jenkins left Mater Dei at the end of winter break after six months on the job. The Diocese of Orange said Jenkins, who is a priest with the Congregation of Holy Cross, has returned to his religious order in South Bend, Ind.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer declined to file charges in the alleged hazing incident, describing the fight as “mutual combat” and saying that his office had “no evidence of hazing or any other crime that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The fact that the locker-room altercation had a name, “Bodies,” suggests that it had become ritualized among the players, Bellocchio said: “You don’t name a random fight in its first incarnation.”

His complaints cite the locker-room incident, as well as a civil lawsuit alleging that two football players carried out a planned attack on a basketball player, breaking his jaw.

Mater Dei football coach Bruce Rollinson, who has held the job since 1988, is one of the country’s most successful high school football coaches. Last month, his team won its third state championship in five years.

The injured student’s parents told The Times that their son, new to the football team, saw “Bodies” as his ticket to acceptance. He told them that players who didn’t participate could be called names, teased or targeted in a more unpleasant way: having their lockers soaked in urine.

The complaint that Bellocchio filed with federal education officials could spur an outside investigation into whether students faced discrimination if they did not participate in hazing rituals, Bellocchio said. He wrote that students pressured to participate in “Bodies” were “left with two options: be violently attacked, or withdraw from an aspect of school they enjoyed.”

Bellocchio filed his third complaint with the commission that licenses teachers in California, seeking an investigation into Erin Barisano, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Orange.

The complaint is designed to trigger an inquiry by state officials into whether Barisano was aware of hazing at Mater Dei and whether she did anything to prevent it, Bellocchio said. That could include a review of school records.

The commission could then pursue further action, including a private written warning, a public warning of misconduct or a retroactive suspension of Barisano’s license.

Her teaching credential expired in 2011, state records show. The commission can take disciplinary action that retroactively applies to expired licenses.

Kincaid, the diocese spokeswoman, confirmed that Barisano “deliberately let her California credential lapse” because she no longer teaches in a classroom. Barisano, who did not respond to a request for comment, does not need the certification to be superintendent.

“Dr. Barisano’s professional credentials are exemplary,” Kincaid said. “Her devotion to the well-being of Mater Dei students, and the entire Diocese of Orange school system, is beyond dispute.”

Laura J. Nelson

Laura J. Nelson is an investigative and enterprise reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

Connor Sheets

Connor Sheets is an investigative and enterprise reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

Hannah Fry

Hannah Fry is a Metro reporter covering Orange County for the Los Angeles Times. She joined the newspaper in 2013 as a reporter for the Daily Pilot, a Times Community News publication. Fry most recently covered breaking news for The Times and was part of the team that was a 2020 Pulitzer finalist for its coverage of a boat fire that killed 34 people off the coast of Santa Barbara. She grew up in Orange County and got her start as an intern at the Orange County Register.