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Salesians' focus is education of young

The third-largest Catholic order operates St. Petersburg Catholic High School and owns Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa.

By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2002

The third-largest Catholic order operates St. Petersburg Catholic High School and owns Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa.

Two local misconduct cases involving members of the Salesians of Don Bosco have thrust the Catholic religious order into the national spotlight on clergy misconduct.

The Salesians are known nationwide for using gentle persuasion and kindness in the education of young people, and for reviving struggling religious schools. Their motto is "Leading youth in America to Christ for over 100 years."

The Salesians Society of Florida, under the jurisdiction of the Salesians of Don Bosco, owns Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa and has operated it for about 75 years. About four years ago, Salesians began operating St. Petersburg Catholic High School, which the Diocese of St. Petersburg owns.

Both schools have come under scrutiny as allegations of misconduct became public in the past month.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, the Salesians of Don Bosco was one of several religious institutions sued by Rick Gomez, a 28-year-old who says he was sexually abused at Mary Help about 15 years ago.

Gomez, who lives in California, said William Burke, a Salesian brother at the time, routinely abused him during the year Gomez lived at the residential school. Burke, the Holy See and the Diocese of St. Petersburg also are defendants.

In another case, Catholic officials said two weeks ago that the Rev. Richard McCormick resigned from St. Petersburg Catholic after a female student complained that he "cupped his hands around her chin and gave her a kiss."

St. John Bosco founded the Salesians in 1859 to be a friend to poor, abandoned and at-risk kids. In helping young people in need, the Salesians believe they are furthering the work of Christ.

They believe in persuasion, not intimidation, to get students to obey. Their methods insist that "all force must be excluded and, in its place, charity must be the mainspring of action." Salesians are instructed in "ways to make yourself loved," which include being gentle and prudent, speaking kindly and acting as a "caring father," according to the Salesians' Web site.

The group often works in inner city neighborhoods. And, with more than 40,000 priests, brothers, sisters and lay people in 120 countries worldwide, the Salesians today are the third-largest Catholic order in the world, according to the group's Web site.

The Salesians are divided into provinces throughout the world, including the eastern and western provinces within the United States.

Salesians in the eastern province operate at close to 25 locations, the Very Rev. James Heuser said from his office in New York, which serves as a headquarters.

Mary Help and St. Petersburg Catholic are the only Salesian locations in the Tampa Bay area. The order is independent from the Diocese of St. Petersburg. However, Heuser said, order priests abide by policies of the diocese where they are located.

In recent months, the Salesians started to review past and present allegations of sexual misconduct and began immediately removing from ministry anyone "found to have had allegations against them," Heuser said in a statement.

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