Catholic School Facing 4th Suit
Ex-Student Claims Priest Abused Him

By Thomas W. Krause
Tampa Tribune [Florida]
March 15, 2005

Tampa - Mary Help of Christians School is facing its fourth lawsuit filed since 2002 alleging young male students were molested by clergy members who taught there.

A Miami man filed the most recent suit Friday, alleging sexual misconduct by former principal Father Kevin O'Brien.

Richard Peterson Jr., who attended the school from 1976 until 1979, says the abuse took place in the principal's office during the last two years he attended classes at the Catholic school on Chelsea Street.

O'Brien, Peterson says, told him the molestation was a form of punishment for misbehaving in school. The priest said he had permission from the boy's parents and from the Catholic church to administer discipline however he pleased, according to the suit.

School officials referred comment to the Salesians of Don Bosco, the New York-based Catholic order that runs the school.

Father Jim Heuser, Salesian provincial for the eastern United States, said he could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but said the order has made apologies to youths who were victimized while under Salesian care.

"We regret when these realities happen," Heuser said. "It's something we have to repent over when they happen. ... It's a crime and a major failing on our part."

When wrongdoing is found, Heuser said, the order tries to meet with victims to apologize in person and to make amends, including compensation.

Although nothing in O'Brien's file shows evidence of sexual misconduct, Heuser said, there will be an investigation.

O'Brien, who died in 1981, is the namesake of an award to the eighth-grader who demonstrates excellence in academics, sports and service.

In April 2002, a former Mary Help of Christians student filed suit alleging sexual contact in 1986 and 1987 by a former brother who later became a priest. In November 2003, two former students jointly filed suit alleging a different priest abused them in 1992. In October, a man sued alleging abuse by that priest, also in 1992.

Jeffrey Herman, the Miami lawyer handling Peterson's case, said the school has shown a pattern of sexual abuse and that is "of great concern when you're dealing with kids."

Herman said he suspects more victims will surface.

According to its Web site, the school opened in 1927 as an orphanage and school for homeless boys. By the 1970s, it was a boarding school. Since the late 1990s, it has been a co-ed day school.


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