Pedophile priests operated at this California school for decades. This is the Catholic order that covered up their abuse
Two boys, born into deeply religious families, both sent to Catholic school, and both abused by the very priests and teachers meant to protect them.
George Stein and Joey Piscitelli grew up a decade apart, but they are connected by their abuse at the hands of priests and brothers from a Catholic order founded to help and support vulnerable children.
Their experiences reveal a pattern of abuse and cover-up going back more than half a century.
A year-long CNN investigation into the Salesians of Don Bosco discovered that for decades, abuser priests and brothers were repeatedly protected and transferred from school to school at the expense of their young victims who were pressured and threatened not to report what had happened to them.
On multiple occasions Salesian leaders withheld cases of abuse from the authorities and even from other parts of the Catholic Church.
A cluster of abusers
The oldest of eight children Stein grew up believing it was his calling to become a priest.
He was 13 in 1958 when he began studying at Don Bosco College, later renamed Salesian High School, in Richmond, California. It was there that he met Brother Bernard Dabbene.
“We had a very strict routine,” Stein, now in his late 70s and living in Seattle, remembers -- everything regulated by the ringing of bells.
“When the bell rang you went to class, you went to study hall, you went to recreation, you went to the refectory for meals. And you were assigned chores to help with the upkeep of seminary.”
One day in his sophomore year when he was 15, Stein says, Dabbene told him to go to a particular spot and wait to be assigned a chore.
“When I got there, I felt it was a little strange because there was no one there and there were probably no duties to be performed,” Stein says. “He came after a while and he basically hugged me and kissed me, and that was inappropriate, and I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
Stein reported the incident to a Salesian provincial, Father Alfred Cogliandro (roughly equivalent to an Archbishop), during one of his visits to the school. “I said, ‘This happened to me, and I want it to stop!’”
Stein says Dabbene left the school shortly afterwards. He says he was simply happy the abuse was over.
Patrick Wall, a former priest who has dedicated his life to helping victims of clerical abuse, says he comes across this frequently in his work. A lead researcher and consultant for Jeff Anderson and Associates law firm, Wall has worked on more than 200 cases of clergy abuse.
“We have cases every day of the week where they’re simply moved -- they’re geographically moved to another location and put into ministry without telling anyone, local authorities, sometimes the local parish or sometimes even the diocese,” he says.
But following his ordination, Dabbene -- now Father Dabbene -- returned to the school.
A cluster of abusers operated at the school for decades, some of those during Dabbene’s time as principal in the 1970s.
CNN has reached out to the Provincial for the Western Province of the Salesian order in the United States for comment.
Joey Piscitelli was at the school in 1972, when Dabbene returned as principal.
Among the abusers on staff was Father Stephen Whelan, the school’s vice principal, who soon had Piscitelli in his sights.
“I was a runt,” Piscitelli recalls. “I weighed maybe 80 pounds when I got to high school. I was the smallest person in the school, and I was befriended by the vice principal almost immediately.”
Piscitelli says his ordeal began when Whelan invited him along to the Salesian Boys Club, on the school campus.
“We were going to play pool, and he sat down at the bench and said, ‘You shoot.’ I said ‘OK,’ and I shot the ball. And I turned around and told him, ‘It’s your turn.’ And he was sitting there masturbating.”
“I remember I turned all red, I started sweating,” Piscitelli says. “The hair on my neck was standing up, and I just stood there frozen -- I didn’t know what to do.”
“He said, ‘Keep playing. I want to watch you,’” Piscitelli recalls. “And then I turned around and the head of the Boys Club, Brother Sal [Billante] was watching this, and he just stood there watching. He did nothing.”
Separately, Salvatore Billante was later convicted for child abuse in 1989, and handed an eight-year sentence. He served four years in prison and was required to register as a sex offender. In 2002, he was indicted in another case involving 181 counts of child abuse between 1972 and 1978. He left the Salesian order, and died in 2016.
As the months went by, Piscitelli says his abuse at the hands of Whelan worsened.
“One day he cornered me on the stairs and started molesting me and told me, ‘Get upstairs!’ he dragged me into the room and attacked me, and I was raped. I blacked out while it happened.”
After the attack, Piscitelli says he doesn’t remember how he got home. “But when I got home, I had blood in my underwear, so I went in the backyard of my house and I wrapped the bloody underwear around a rock and threw it over the fence into the field to get rid of the evidence.”
To cope with the abuse he had suffered, Piscitelli drew often graphic images depicting the horrors he lived through.
Threats, attacks and damage control
Piscitelli says the principal threatened him after he told the school counsellor what had happened.
“[He] told me that he was going to kick me out of school and fire my mother from the cafeteria because I have a big mouth,” he recalls. “I begged him not to do that, and I apologized, and I said I would never talk about it again.”
Piscitelli remembers Dabbene ranting and screaming at him. “He was livid. He said: ‘Nobody is going to believe your word against a priest,’ which startled me, as it was the same thing Whelan had said.”
Piscitelli says he was also physically attacked by another Salesian priest working as a teacher at the school.
“[He] cornered me on the second floor outside of geometry class the hallway was empty. He said, ‘Stand in front of me. I want to talk to you put your hands at your side and look me in the eyes.’”
“And while I was looking at him wondering what he wanted, he kneed me in the groin as hard as he could. I went down I just lay on the floor. I couldn’t even breathe,” says Piscitelli.
“I thought I was going to have to go to the hospital. I couldn’t move. It was so bad. And while I was laying there, he said to me, ‘You have a big mouth. I don’t want to see you up here again.’”
The priest is still working within the Salesian order. He has never faced charges.
Piscitelli, who graduated from the school in 1973, has since made it his life's mission to bring the Salesians to justice for the abuse they inflicted upon him as a child.
In 2006, he won a civil suit against them and was awarded damages of $600,000. But his victory was no compensation for a childhood lost to sexual and physical abuse.
Piscitelli said he never received an apology from the Salesians -- until CNN contacted the order as part of its investigation.
“They know that somebody is investigating their behavior, and they are doing damage control,” he said. “They have never apologized since I sued in 2003. They continued to call me a liar long after I won the court case in 2006 then the phony hollow apology arrives.”
Praying for the priest
Dabbene rose through the ranks to become Principal of Salesian High School, Director of Don Bosco Tech in Rosemead, California, and to serve on the Archdiocesan Board of Education in Los Angeles.
But in November 2000, the priest and educator -- by then aged 63 -- was caught in a car on the San Francisco waterfront, with his trousers unzipped and accompanied by a 17-year-old boy.
The then Provincial for the order’s Western Province, Father Nick Reina, wrote to the local Salesian community, saying he was “dismayed and upset” by the allegations against Dabbene, and cautioning: “We do not yet know all the facts.”
“If all the allegations made are found to have merit, then we owe a very great apology indeed to all who may have been touched by this situation,” he wrote.
But Reina raised some eyebrows when he asked the Salesians to pray not only for Dabbene’s victim, but also for the priest himself.
“I ask you to join me in prayer for the young person involved in this incident and any family members,” he wrote. “I also ask for your prayers for Father Dabbene and all Salesian brothers and priests who minister in the San Francisco province.”
Reina also told a local newspaper, “It's a bad experience for him [Dabbene] -- he's devastated."
Wall, who has investigated hundreds of sexual abuse cases involving the Catholic Church, believes that outward sympathy with an accused priest, rather than his victim, is a behaviour common to all religious orders.
“This is a sexualized celibate system,” he told CNN. “When you have a sexualized celibate system, you have people that will not report on one another. And you have a system whereby children are lower valued than a priest or a member of the religious order. So, if they commit a crime, you look away.”
After Dabbene admitted attempting to molest the minor found in his car, he was handed a suspended sentence. Reina reassigned him to work as an archivist at the Salesians’ headquarters in San Francisco -- a position he held until his death in 2010. Dabbene was never removed from the Salesian order.
Unlike Piscitelli, Stein did not take the Salesians to court, but in 2002 he says he finally confronted his own feelings about what happened to him, following the Boston Globe’s expos of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
“I was on a retreat at my kid’s school, and we were just in a small group of guys sharing who we were, sort of spiritually, in our lives. I waited until the very end, and then I just sort of erupted and I just blurted out, ‘I was abused.’”
“It was the first time I had said that out loud and sort of admitted it to myself that I was, you know, in that group of people. So it was sort of a shock for me to realize that -- it had been so long.”
Following this breakthrough, he decided to open up to his family. His brother, a Salesian priest, took the news badly.
“For many years, he held that against me, that I didn’t tell him that happened when he came into the community,” Stein says.
The same year, Stein reached out to the Provincial, Reina, to seek help regarding his abuse at the hands of Dabbene.
“I called the Provincial and the Provincial offered counselling and I took counselling,” Stein recalls, matter-of-factly.
After abuse allegations, an award
What Stein didn’t know at the time was that Reina, too, had been accused of abuse.
Reina -- a mathematics teacher as well as a priest -- had also served as President of Salesian High School.
In a 2013 newsletter marking his departure from the school, Reina was hailed as “an amazing teacher and spiritual advisor,” who had been recognized as the school’s Educator of the Year.
But a CNN investigation found that by the time that glowing endorsement was published, the Salesian order had known for more than a decade that Reina, now 72, had been accused himself of abuse.
The child abuse allegation, which dated back to 1975 -- before Reina was ordained — was reported to the Salesians in 2002. According to a statement released by the Salesians in 2018, the order recognized it as “credible,” but did not remove the priest from either his post or the ministry. There has been no criminal investigation into the allegation.
Reina did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
And just a year before his Educator of the Year award, in 2012, the Salesians had received a second credible allegation of abuse against Reina -- this time involving a report of “adult impropriety.”
A man told church authorities that, in 2000, Reina had “made an improper advance to him when he was an adult.” The order said it did not act on the allegation, “because the incident did not involve a minor.”
Instead Reina was allowed to continue in his post, later transferring to another school -- Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Los Angeles.
He was only removed from his position, in 2018, when news of both allegations first reached the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
The Salesians had withheld critical information on Reina from the Archdiocese for almost two decades.
‘The Salesians are silencio’
CNN has learned that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has enabled the Salesians -- and other religious orders -- to police themselves on issues of child abuse, with little to no external accountability.
“Other religious institutes are reporting out lists of credibly accused, they’re saying who they are, when they knew about them, where did they work, everything else,” said Wall.
“The Salesians are silencio. They have refused to put out anything unless it’s with a court order or unless the civil authorities force them to do something. Why are they waiting to only do the minimum?”
The Salesians refused CNN’s requests for an interview, but in response to the investigation, Father Ted Montemayor, Provincial for the Western Province, issued a statement on the organization’s website, saying: “We condemn sexual abuse and are committed to securing and promoting the safety and well-being of children.”
“We know that terrible acts of abuse have happened in the past,” the statement said. “We express our sincerest apologies to all victims and their families impacted by abuse by any member of the Salesian order.”
“We take abuse very seriously and have over the past decade implemented policies and procedures designed to better prevent and respond to child abuse,” Montemayor added.
Despite the allegations against them, neither Reina nor Whelan has been removed from the Salesian order.
Reina remains at their Western headquarters in San Francisco “under restrictions.” Whelan is living at Don Bosco Hall, Berkeley, California, also “under restrictions.”
According to Sam Singer, the Salesian spokesman for the Western Province of the United States, these restrictions include having no contact with minors, no involvement in public ministry and no unaccompanied overnight trips.
CNN revealed to Stein in the course of this investigation that Reina, too, had been accused of abuse. “It's surprising me that Nick is younger than I am and that it's in that next generation,” Stein said in response.
“Those who would have been around to abuse, or groom or you know, molest in the seminary are all pretty much dead and gone. But that it still exists within the community is disappointing.”
For Piscitelli, learning of the allegations against Reina was even more of a punch to the gut, since the priest officiated at Piscitelli’s 1979 wedding.
“What this means to me is that I will have to be haunted even more now, because the pictures of my wife and I at the altar, being married, contain the pictures of yet another child sex abuser Salesian priest,” Piscitelli wrote to Montemayor in a letter seen by CNN. Despite these allegations and the actions taken by the order to remove him, Reina has never been convicted of child abuse. But, to Piscitelli, the allegations are still painful.
“Now I have to add that to the nightmares I have, that have been caused by the Salesians.”