Teenager Was Raped in 1970s by High-ranking Salesian Priest in Marrero, Lawsuit Says
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
December 12, 2018
A Louisiana man claims in a new lawsuit that nearly 40 years ago, the regional leader of a Catholic religious order that founded Archbishop Shaw High School dosed him with what might have been chloroform and raped him.
When he confronted Catholic officials this fall about the episode, they tried to prevent it from becoming public despite treating the claim as credible, the 36-page lawsuit filed Wednesday in Orleans Parish Civil District Court says.
|Salvatore "Sam" Isgro|
The man, whose identity is not revealed in the suit, demands damages from the Salesians of Don Bosco, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and officials with both organizations, including Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
The suit marks the latest legal salvo against the local Catholic Church involving decades-old allegations of clerical abuse in New Orleans and a movement from victims and their advocates to air the claims publicly.
The accused rapist named in the new suit, the late Salvatore “Sam” Isgro, was not among the eight Salesian priests who were named in a Nov. 2 list released by Aymond of 57 local clergymen who he said were the subjects of credible claims of child sex abuse.
The Catholic religious order with the second-most priests on that list, the Jesuits, released a similar inventory last week that added the names of brothers and schoolteachers who were studying to be priests.
Aymond's list was released after he met with the plaintiff in the latest case.
In a statement Wednesday, the archdiocese disputed parts of the suit, including a claim that Aymond indicated he knew Isgro.
"As with all individuals who contact the archbishop with allegations of abuse, Archbishop Aymond met with the victim to hear his story and provide pastoral care," the archdiocese's statement said. "Contrary to what is alleged in the lawsuit, Archbishop Aymond did not know the accused. After hearing the victim’s story, the archbishop put him in touch with the Salesians for further care and counseling."
The archdiocese "then consulted with the Salesians in formulating the Nov. 2 list and was advised that the Salesians were uncertain as to the identity of the accused. Relying on that information, Salesian (Father) Salvatore Isgro’s name does not appear on the list," said the archdiocese, reiterating that the investigation and final disposition of accusations against priests who belonged to religious orders are up to those organizations.
Citing a policy against discussing pending litigation, the Salesians declined comment on the lawsuit, filed by two attorneys who are becoming familiar adversaries to the Catholic Church in New Orleans.
The lawyers, John Denenea and Richard Trahant, last month sued for damages on behalf of four men who claim they were abused both sexually and physically at the Catholic-run youth homes in Marrero known as Hope Haven and Madonna Manor.
The Salesians named on Aymond's Nov. 2 list worked at those homes, which were at the center of a $5 million financial settlement paid to numerous accusers with similar, but unrelated, claims in 2009.
Denenea said in a statement, “This is a shocking example of what men in power will do unto those least able to protect themselves. In forsaking this victim, is the archbishop a clergyman or a businessman? Because the archdiocese has to genuinely decide if it is truly a religious institution or merely a risk management organization in the way they handle victims of sexual abuse.”
The plaintiff in the new case says he was 17 in 1979, studying at Marrero’s John Ehret High School and working part-time assisting nurses and orderlies at a local hospital where a priest — who he later learned was Isgro — regularly visited patients.
Isgro in 1973 had been named the leader of the New York-based office, known as the Eastern Province, that supervised Salesians in the New Orleans area as well as other places.
Eventually, at the request of the man he then knew only as “Father Sam,” the plaintiff began caring for Salesian brother Jimmy Rolando, whose legs had been amputated and who lived at Shaw High. The teen was interested because it was extra money that he could use to buy a senior ring at his public school.
One day that November, Rolando told the plaintiff that his check, normally left on a bedside table, would be in a nearby linen closet, the lawsuit says. When the teen went there, he realized that Father Sam, who signed his checks, had approached him from behind.
Allegedly, Father Sam twice placed a small vial filled with what smelled like ammonia under the boy’s nose, making him feel dizzy and disoriented. He then pulled the teen’s pants down and raped him, telling him repeatedly, “Don’t tense up,” the lawsuit says.
After the assault, the priest ordered the teen to get dressed and to sit in a warm bath after he got home, according to the lawsuit.
The teen, when he left, found both his check and what appeared to be a Shaw senior ring with his initials engraved in it in one of his pockets. Then, while taking a bus home, he realized he was bleeding from his rectum so much that he soiled his clothes, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says the youth needed to use women’s menstrual pads for several days to stop his clothes from being stained.
He graduated early from Ehret and soon joined the military, returning to the New Orleans area about three years ago because of health issues and to be closer to family.
This summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury report exposed sex abuse allegations involving hundreds of priests there. Media coverage of that report prompted the plaintiff in late September to write Aymond a detailed letter about his assault.
Ultimately, the lawsuit says, Aymond called the plaintiff and met with him. According to the lawsuit, Aymond indicated he knew "Father Sam" — without disclosing that his name was Isgro — and that he believed the plaintiff’s version of events, even photographing the graduation ring.
Aymond also eventually put the plaintiff in touch with a high-ranking Salesian priest from Florida named Stephen Ryan, who brought in New Jersey attorney John Kelly, the lawsuit says.
After asking him “to keep the entire issue quiet,” the lawsuit alleges, Ryan and Kelly had the plaintiff sign an agreement to be treated by a psychiatrist in Austin, Texas, at their expense.
One session would be in person and the rest would be by the Skype online video-link application. But the psychiatrist, who found the plaintiff was credible and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, concluded that she could not effectively treat him over Skype, according to the suit.
The suit says she also “strongly advised” him to retain legal counsel, leading him to Trahant and Denenea.
A letter from the Salesians containing the plaintiff’s claim of abuse by a priest he knew only as Father Sam ultimately ended up at Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office. Within hours, Assistant District Attorney Sunny Funk determined that the priest was Isgro, who had written a book about his order’s founder and who died in 1990.
Funk’s findings made the plaintiff conclude that the Salesians were falsely claiming they didn’t know Isgro’s identity.
The plaintiff added that the agreement contained a confidentiality clause that he never requested. Under church guidelines adopted in 2002, those provisions are supposed to be included only at the explicit request of victims, the suit argues.
Despite Aymond's statement, the plaintiff's side criticized the archdiocese's Nov. 2 list for leaving out Isgro. The list was released a few days before Funk began looking into the case.
The lawsuit contends those circumstances amount to a cover-up and should thus prevent any statutes of limitation from applying in the case.
Aside from the Salesians, the church and Aymond, the suit names Ryan and Kelly as defendants.
The Salesians were founded in the late 19th century by an Italian priest who came to be known as St. John Bosco. Their original purpose was to aid poor children victimized by the Industrial Revolution. They work with U.S. dioceses but aren’t controlled by them.