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Vatican, bay area diocese sued

A man claims he was abused at a Hillsborough religious school in 1987. The suit alleges the school moved the accused clergyman to avoid an investigation.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2002

A man claims he was abused at a Hillsborough religious school in 1987. The suit alleges the school moved the accused clergyman to avoid an investigation.

ST. PETERSBURG -- In a challenge to the moral authority of the Catholic Church, a Minnesota attorney on Wednesday filed two lawsuits accusing the Vatican of engaging in a global coverup of sexual abuse that extends to the Tampa Bay area.

The local lawsuit accuses a former brother at Mary Help of Christians School in Hillsborough County of molesting a 14-year-old boy in 1987. It contends that the church moved Brother William Burke to New Jersey to thwart a Hillsborough criminal investigation.

The suit, filed in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court, names as defendants the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which covers a five-county area, and the Salesians of Don Bosco religious order, which operates the boarding school. It seeks unspecified damages.

Attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who has filed hundreds of cases over two decades alleging sexual misconduct by church officials, also filed a federal suit Wednesday in Oregon. That suit names the Vatican and dioceses in Portland and Chicago for moving a priest, who is now deceased, to three different cities after allegations of sexual abuse against children arose in each diocese.

In the Pinellas and Oregon lawsuits, Anderson accuses church leaders of routinely moving clergy accused of sexual abuse across state and national lines to hamper investigations and keep communities in the dark.

"This is about secret burying and protecting criminal wrongdoing and protecting pedophile priests all across the world," Anderson said in a news conference in St. Petersburg.

Burke, now a priest, lives in the New York area. Hillsborough Sheriff's officials said Wednesday they investigated the allegations against Burke in 1989, but a county prosecutor decided not to pursue charges.

The local lawsuit is the latest blow to the St. Petersburg diocese, coming less than two weeks after the diocese said it paid more than $100,000 to a former employee who alleged that Bishop Robert N. Lynch sexually harassed him.

The St. Petersburg diocese said in a statement it should not be a party to Anderson's lawsuit because the school was owned and operated by the Salesians.

The diocese "had no authority over William Burke, and the role normally assigned to the bishop in this instance belongs to his religious superior" of the Salesians, the statement said. "We extend our deepest sympathy for these victims and all victims of sexual abuse at the hands of all those connected with the Catholic Church."

Anderson acknowledged that he had no knowledge that the St. Petersburg bishop knew about Burke's behavior at the time it occurred.

In Hillsborough, school officials referred questions to the New York offices of The Salesians of Don Bosco, which has the motto "Leading Youth in America to Christ for Over 100 Years!" It issued a statement of apology "for the sexual misconduct of some of our members, for the unspeakable violation of the young whom we have harmed rather than served."

The statement does not refer specifically to the allegations in the Pinellas lawsuit.

Among the hundreds of lawsuits involving clergy sexual abuse filed nationally in recent years, Anderson's legal challenges to the church mark an unusually direct attack on the Vatican.

Few suits have been filed against the Vatican, a sovereign entity, alleging sexual abuse. No legal challenge has been successful, lawyers involved in other church-related litigation say.

"They are on the thinnest of ice," Bob Sherman, a Boston attorney who has filed several hundred claims of sexual misconduct against the church, said of Anderson's lawsuits. "He's gained a lot of attention to the plight of his victims, and maybe there's benefit in doing that. But it's an unfortunate overreaching that harms the claims of all legitimate victims."

"I understand, though, how it's also a product of the frustration victims and lawyers feel for the church's inaction," Sherman said.

Sherman said the biggest hurdle facing Anderson is jurisdiction. Even the simple act of subpoenaing a Vatican witness in a state court will be nearly impossible, he said.

Anderson said the suit can be successful and sends a message to clergy that abuse will not be tolerated.

"Church leaders have been guilty of making deceitful choices," he said.

Suing the church is difficult even without the Vatican as a defendant. In the hundreds of local cases he has filed, Anderson said, three have led to punitive damages against the church by a jury.

Of those three verdicts, two withstood appeals while monetary awards were dramatically reduced by a judge. Numerous other lawsuits have been settled before trial.

At the news conference in St. Petersburg, Anderson brought his client in the local lawsuit. Rick Gomez, now 28, wiped tears from his eyes and rolled tissue in nervous hands as he recounted abuse he said he suffered while in the 7th grade at the Mary Help of Christians School in Hillsborough.

Gomez said Burke molested him up to 30 times, usually late at night, as he slept in the school dormitory during his one year there.

"Having the blind faith that I had in Brother Bill and the Catholic Church in general, although I felt what was happening was wrong, it couldn't be wrong," said Gomez, a Tampa native living in California. "These were people I looked up to and respected."

Two years after Gomez said he was sexually abused in Tampa, his mother, Valerie Tolson, 53, noticed her son was acting strangely. His grades were falling off, and he seemed depressed.

His mother asked him what was bothering him, and he told her of the abuse.

He also told her that he wanted to report Burke to authorities. So they called the police in Easton, Md., where they had recently moved. A complaint was made to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, since Mary Help of Christians is in unincorporated Hillsborough County.

The report says that Gomez complained that Burke had groped and kissed him on several occasions between September 1986 and August 1987, while he was a student.

But when deputies went to interview Burke at the school, they were told he was reassigned. Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter, who reviewed the report but was unable to get a copy to reporters Wednesday, said it was not clear whether anyone from the Sheriff's Office talked to Burke in person or on the phone.

On Sept. 11, 1989, deputies submitted their report to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, where it was reviewed by Assistant State Attorney John Valenti. He concluded that there was not enough evidence for charges.

Valenti, who is no longer a prosecutor, could not be reached for comment. In 1994, Valenti pleaded guilty for taking money to fix cases. He was sentenced to five years' probation after agreeing to testify against another lawyer.

As for Burke, he apparently moved from Hillsborough to Salesian schools and retreats in New Jersey and New York.

In New Jersey, the order operates a prep school and a technical high school. In New York, the order operates The Don Bosco Retreat Center in Stony Point, north of New York City. In the winter of 1999, Burke was mentioned in The Salesian Bulletin as part of a team that "welcomes 12,000 teens and 6,000 adults each year" to the New York retreat center.

The Very Rev. James Heuser, vice provincial of the Salesians of Don Bosco in the Eastern Province, said Wednesday that Burke has not had unsupervised contact with young people in "some years."

Heuser won't say why Burke is no longer allowed to have unsupervised contact with children, or if the order has received other complaints about Burke's conduct. He said that Burke was recently removed from "active ministry," but would not say why.

"We're waiting to see the complaint before we can really say anything," Heuser said.

The voice mail system at the retreat center lists Burke among the options. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit said the Salesians and St. Petersburg diocese entered into a secret agreement with another of Burke's alleged sexual abuse victims.

But in an interview, Anderson acknowledged he had no information proving the diocese knew of the agreement, though he thinks they must have.

Gomez, a computer software consultant, said he considers himself an agnostic and no longer attends church because of what he says happened to him as a youth. For a time, he said, visiting a church made him physically ill.

Tearing up before a dozen television cameras and reporters, Gomez said coming forward was the most difficult decision of his life.

He said he was in a car about two weeks ago, listening to a radio news report about priest abuse, when he decided he had to sue for the 14-year-old molestation. Research by his girlfriend easily found Anderson, his lawyer who stood with him Wednesday.

"It's something that's haunted me," Gomez said.

-- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report.

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