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House of the Accused 

When priests within the Salesian order based in San Francisco were accused of sex abuse, the leaders chose to keep quiet.

Wednesday, Jan 4 2006
The Salesians of St. John Bosco is a Roman Catholic order of priests and lay brothers that prides itself on being "an international organization of men dedicated full time to the service of young people." Secured behind heavy iron gates, the center of its activities for the western United States is a three-story red brick "provincial house" at 1100 Franklin St., on the same hill as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption and around the corner from the offices of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

A block in the other direction is Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, with its nearly 1,200 high school students.

For decades, the Salesians have helped run parishes and schools at the city's landmark Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach, Corpus Christi Church in the Outer Mission, and Salesian High School in the East Bay.

But another distinction of the order's presence on Franklin Street is perhaps less well known: Five of the eight Salesians listed in a recent personnel directory as holding positions of responsibility at the provincial house are also accused child molesters. One of them, Father Bernard Dabbene, who once held a prominent post as former San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada's chief liaison to parishes in the archdiocese, is a convicted sex offender who struck a plea bargain with prosecutors to avoid going to jail.

The list does not include a defrocked former lay brother, Salvatore Billante, who served four years in prison for molesting a child and was later indicted on a whopping 181 counts of sex abuse. His post-prison charges were dropped in 2003 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law extending the statute of limitation for such crimes was unconstitutional.

"Rarely if ever have there been so many accused priests clustered at the heart of a single religious order," says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a victim advocate group. Although largely ignored by news media, SNAP's protests in recent months outside schools and churches run by the order, and in front of archdiocese headquarters, have sought to draw attention to what Clohessy claims is the Salesians' "abysmal record" in dealing with their accused clerics.

Father David Purdy, the superior at the provincial house -- the headquarters for the order's activities in the United States west of the Mississippi River -- vehemently disagrees, saying that the Salesians adhere to "a child safe policy" and that the order's priests and lay brothers do "exemplary work" ministering to young people. The order's attorney, Steve McFeely, likewise says that the Salesians have gotten a bum rap and that "a number" of the half-dozen or more lawsuits against the order stemming from alleged misconduct by clerics attached to the San Francisco provincial "have no merit."

Several of those lawsuits, including one involving allegations against an associate pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Church and another against a priest who once worked at the Vatican Press Office -- and both of whom have proclaimed their innocence -- are wending their way toward jury trials in Bay Area courts.

Regardless of how they are adjudicated, however, the cases involving these and other accused priests at the provincial house, as revealed by court documents and interviews with current and former Salesian officials and alleged victims, suggest an inability or unwillingness on the part of the order's leaders to fully investigate abuse cases brought to their attention.

For example, in one case involving Father Richard Presenti, court documents reveal that even after Presenti admitted to molesting a former student, neither Purdy nor his predecessor, Father Nick Reina, bothered to ask Presenti if he had ever abused anyone else. Three men have filed lawsuits claiming that Presenti abused them as teenagers. Although court records show that Presenti admitted in 2003 that he had molested one of the men, he remained the provincial's treasurer, entrusted with directing the order's financial affairs, until last July, when he stepped aside.

In the case of Dabbene, who pleaded guilty to child sex abuse and was given a suspended sentence in 2001, he was later restored to the Salesian community and placed in charge of keeping its archives, after being sent for treatment. But a former seminarian later came forward to say Dabbene had abused him in 1959, and says that -- despite the priest's career having flourished for four decades -- Salesian officials should have known about the abuse because he reported it personally to the order's superior at the time.

"It's sort of like cops gone bad," says attorney Rick Simons, who represents several plaintiffs claiming abuse at the hands of Salesian clerics. "There's a pattern of reluctance [by Salesian officials] to do anything that might harm a priest's career, irrespective of the effects on children and parishioners."

The last time Richard Gross recalls seeing Father Richard Presenti, he says, the priest was standing over his bed in church camp having just done something terrible to him. It was the summer of 1973, and Gross was a frightened 14-year-old boy with a fever, sent to the infirmary at Camp Salesian, a summer camp for boys from the Bay Area near Middletown in Lake County.

As Gross recalls -- or as he puts it, "will never forget" -- it was late at night, and he and another boy who was also ailing were asleep a few feet from each other, their beds separated by a hospital curtain. Presenti didn't turn on the light when he entered; he had a flashlight. At first Gross thought he was having a nightmare. He could hear the other boy whimpering. "It was like he was being terrorized but was too scared to scream," Gross says.

It was the same sensation Gross says he felt after Presenti pulled back the curtain and began touching him. He says the ordeal lasted only a few minutes, but seemed like an eternity. The priest, he says, moved methodically between the frightened boys, masturbating them, masturbating himself, and, ultimately, orally copulating them. "I froze. I was paralyzed. He took turns with us. First the other boy, then me, then back to the other one. This happened at least three or four times until he got the satisfaction he wanted. It was like looking evil in the face. He was in the dark, yet I knew exactly who he was."

About The Author

Ron Russell


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