Victim Struggles to Heal After Sexual Abuse by Salesian Priest

December 24, 2019 Updated: December 24, 2019
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In the fall of 1969, Joey Piscitelli, who had recently turned 14 years old, entered Salesian High School in Richmond, California. He quickly caught the eye of the vice principal, Father Stephen Whelan, who invited him to play a game of pool at the Salesian Boys’ Club on the school’s campus.

“I thought it was a really big deal that he wanted to play pool with me,” Piscitelli recalled.

But the game took a disturbing turn after Whelan asked Piscitelli to take the first shot. After he did so, Joey turned around and saw that his vice principal was touching himself.

He wanted to leave, but Whelan implored him to stay. Meanwhile, the head of the Boys’ Club, Brother Sal Billante, watched the entire exchange without speaking up or attempting to put a stop to the abuse, said Piscitelli.

“[He] was watching this, just standing there smiling,” Piscitelli said. “After that, I was molested several times and ultimately raped … I would hide from [Whelan]. I’d go to the Boys’ Club and hide and make sure he wasn’t there, then he’d sneak over there. Then after that he would call me into his office and say, ‘You’re in trouble for talking in class’ or something else, he’d make up reasons. Then he’d molest me and then tell me if I say anything that nobody’s going to believe my word against the vice principal and everybody was going to call me a liar and humiliate my family.”

When a counsellor visited the school in 1972 and inquired about why Piscitelli’s grades—which he says were straight A’s during his first eight years of school—had suddenly plummeted, he informed her that he had been abused.

“The next day the principal calls me into his office and says I have a big mouth. I’m going to get kicked out of school. My mom’s going to get fired from [her job at the school] cafeteria. He’s going to make me miserable, and nobody’s going to believe my word against the priests,” Piscitelli recalled. “That was the first time I saw their retaliation.”

On another occasion, an administrator named Father David Purdy called Piscitelli into his office and attempted to induce the boy into killing himself, he said.

“He circled around me for like half an hour and he tried to talk me into suicide,” Piscitelli said. “[Purdy said], ‘You know what you should do? Commit suicide. Because nobody likes you, you have a big mouth … and you’re probably going to do it anyway so you might as well do it now. You should commit suicide.’”

“And I did that thing where I floated out of my body because it was so traumatizing,” he added.

Piscitelli recounted this event, among others, in a series of disturbing drawings that he doodled during class.

Purdy would go on to become the superior at the Salesians of St. John Bocso provincial house in San Francisco, the headquarters for the order’s activities in the western part of the United States.

“Every time I was molested, I got threatened. I couldn’t function very well and that’s what was on my mind,” Piscitelli said.

When he graduated in 1973, he said it was “like getting out of a prison hell-house … that’s what it felt like.”

For the next 30 years, Piscitelli made a concentrated effort to bring the institution responsible for his sexual abuse to justice. In 2006, he finally made that goal a reality, but not without serious rebukes from the Salesians.

“When I went to court they threatened me and said, ‘We aren’t going to give you a dime. We’re going to make an example out of you, and humiliate [you]’—the same kind of things they said when I was molested,” Piscitelli recalled.

He said the case dragged on for three years and the Salesians spent millions of dollars. When Piscitelli won, they appealed the case.

“They always told me and my lawyer how they were going to smear me, how they don’t care how much they spend [because] it’s going to be a slam dunk. … They put me through a lot of hell during the three years before the trial and during the trial itself,” he said.

Piscitelli’s lawyer, Rick Simons, who became involved in clergy abuse cases in 2002, confirmed his client’s characterization of how the Salesians treated him during the trial.

“It’s actually worse than what Joey described,” he said. “They called him a liar from the first minute to the last—that was their opening statement, that was their entire argument, that was their entire cross examination of everybody: he’s a liar, he’s a fraud.”

“They were sure they were going to win, even up to the verdict,” Piscitelli said.

Though Piscitelli won the lawsuit, his victory is still tainted by what he perceives to be a lack of remorse.

“I won’t ever forgive them,” he said. “And the reason I won’t forgive them is they’re not sorry for what they’ve done … I have more disdain for them now than I did then. It just grows.”

When an in-depth report on molestation, abuse and rape at the hands of Salesian priests at the school was published by CNN this month, Piscitelli did receive an apology from the order.

However, Piscitelli believes the apology was disingenuous.

“They only did that because they … knew CNN was coming out with a story. From 1969 till now, they sent an apology letter a couple of days before CNN was going to blast them,” he said. “We went all these years with nothing but vindictiveness [and] hatred.”

Amidst the widespread news coverage of abuse cases, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, believes there is a mainstream media bias toward the Catholic Church.

“This is coming as a barrage,” he said. “There has been one story after another that are completely either anecdotal or old cases or incredibly biased about looking for dirt from the Catholic Church … because they can’t find much in the way of new dirt.”

In his view, “this scandal has been long over [in the United States]. The guilty are either dead or long gone.”

Whelan is still alive, but according to a statement released in 2018 by Sam Singer, spokesperson for the Salesian Order, “[Whelan] is no longer an operating priest … He can’t be around children. He has to live in a facility with other Salesians. He cannot even leave that facility without the approval of the chief priest.”

All inquiries aimed at specific dioceses and institutions associated with the Salesians were met with the same response: contact Mr. Singer.

One individual associated with the Salesians returned a call but did not identify himself by name. When asked if he knew Whelan, the anonymous Salesian admitted he had known him “for a number of years,” but he “was not in California at that time.”

When pressed about the nature of Whelan’s character, he paused for seven seconds before saying, “I prefer if you call Mr. Singer because he can give you all the information,” referring to Singer as “a person who can answer your questions.”

While Singer initially responded to The Epoch Times’ request for comments, he did not reply to the questions submitted after repeated inquiries.

“Nobody wants to talk,” Donohue said. “I understand the reticence … However, you can’t complain and whine and say the media is one-sided when you refuse to speak up.”

“I’ve been doing this job for over 26 years. This is the worst I’ve seen it,” he added. “It’s not helpful. It looks like you’re hiding something.”

Jeff Herman, a New York- and Florida-based attorney who specializes in sex abuse cases, told The Epoch Times that out of the 500 lawsuits they’re filing, about half are lodged against the Catholic Church or Catholic orders.

“I’ve been familiar with the Salesians for a long time,” he said. “In my opinion, the Salesians had become really just like a front for a child sex ring. There were so many, so many brothers molesting kids.”

“I see my role as helping victims heal by giving them a voice,” he added. “All you can do is sue for money damages. But that money really is more symbolic than anything for the victims. It’s a measure of justice.”

Simons, Piscitelli’s council in the lawsuit against the Salesians, recalls being overwhelmed as to the extent of the problem.

“How many can there be? Five? Ten?” he recalls thinking to himself at the time when he began focusing on litigation against the clergy. “At that time, [I] had no idea of the real depth of this issue.”

“How could this possibly happen in a civilized, educated society?” Simons added.

An article in the Easy Bay News that appeared within days of the initial CNN report caught Piscitelli’s attention. The title reads “Share the Spirit: West Contra Costa Salesian Boys’ & Girls’ Club offers a safe place for kids in Richmond.”

What concerned Piscitelli the most was the fact that one of the pictures that accompanied the article features two boys, ages 9 and 10, playing pool with West Contra Costa Salesian Boys’ and Girls’ Club Director Steve Alameda.

“That looks like the pool table in the spot where I was molested,” Piscitelli said.

Nate Gartrell, the author of the piece, told The Epoch Times, “The article was written about six weeks before the CNN piece came out, and the photos were taken weeks earlier too, so no, it was not a response to the CNN piece [or the child abuse scandal] by any stretch of the imagination.”

“The Salesians, in particular, have been so incredibly vindictive,” Piscitelli said. “It’s a battle and I think they know it and it never ends. I want to make other people aware of what they’re doing—especially other victims because there is recourse now.”

A new California law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October allows survivors of child sex abuse crimes more time to seek justice by increasing the statute of limitations on reporting childhood sexual assault by 14 years. It also grants a window of three years to revive past claims that expired due to the statute of limitations.