LOCKPORT – A trial got off to a rocky start Monday for two former Catholic middle school students suing St. Dominic Savio Middle School and the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
The students have accused the Niagara Falls school and the diocese of failing to respond to complaints about a teacher before he was arrested on child pornography charges 10 years ago.
Noelle Gonzalez, one of the plaintiffs, testified she did not tell the school principal or the priest overseeing the school about what she called the “creepy” conduct of teacher Christian Butler.
Meanwhile, several charges were either dismissed by State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. or dropped by the plaintiffs during the first day of testimony at the bench trial.
Attorney John M. Visco, representing the Niagara Falls Catholic School Network, said attorney Steven M. Cohen, the students’ attorney, may have created grounds for a mistrial in his opening statement.
Amanda Gill, the other plaintiff, is scheduled to testify today.
In his opening statement, Cohen said Gill seems to have suffered more damage than Gonzalez.
“She’s covered in tattoos. She cuts herself. She can’t have relationships. She won’t go near a church,” Cohen said of Gill, who once wanted to become a nun.
He said Butler once placed his hand on Gill’s thigh in class.
Gill, now 22, is attempting to collect damages from the diocese, the school, the Niagara Falls Catholic School Network and Butler. As a result of Kloch’s pretrial rulings, Gonzalez, also 22, has claims only against Butler and the school network.
Butler was charged in 2004 with possession of child pornography on his school computer and two counts of child endangerment.
He pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced in 2005 to six months in jail and 10 years of probation. Butler, however, violated his probation, so he was sentenced in 2007 to four years in state prison.
William Lorenz, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said a private investigator tracked down Butler in Florida. But the former teacher is not taking part in the trial and has not sent an attorney to court.
Michael J. Roach, attorney for the diocese, said Butler is the only bad guy in the case.
Although the harassment of the girls allegedly started in November 2002, Roach said the diocese did not learn of it until May 2004. That’s when the Rev. Stewart Lindsay, canonical administrator of the school, looked into a report of pornography on the teacher’s computer.
Much of the prurient material in Cohen’s opening statement came from Vanessa DeRosa, now 24, also a former student at St. Dominic Savio, who was one of the students referred to in the child endangerment charges. She did not file a lawsuit.
Butler once got her alone in a locked classroom and “told her to get naked,” Cohen said. The teacher also allegedly urged the middle school girl to have sex with him in his car.
Cohen said in his opening statement that DeRosa complained to Lindsay about Butler.
“He put his fingers in his ears and went ‘La-la-la-la-la,’ ” Cohen told Kloch.
Visco immediately objected, saying that information wasn’t in any of the files or pretrial depositions. So Cohen’s comments could result in a mistrial on the grounds of illegally withholding evidence. Cohen said he had not heard that story from DeRosa until Sunday.
“I’m going to be looking at compliance with discovery,” Kloch said.
Beverley Braun, attorney for the school, said Cohen offered “many red herrings, inflammatory comments” by people who are not parties to the case.
“This case is about notice,” Visco said.
He said Lindsay didn’t take immediate steps in regard to the computer porn because he thought the school’s firewall software was malfunctioning. When the priest learned otherwise, “he moved quickly to get rid of [Butler],” Visco said.
“We will prove the diocese has a culture of suppression,” Cohen said. He said principal Patricia Muscatello blocked action on every complaint against Butler.
Both sides agreed Muscatello and Lindsay should be removed as defendants. And belated claims filed by the parents of Gill and Gonzalez were dismissed because of the statute of limitations.
Gonzalez said that when she was in sixth grade, Butler, a technology and study skills teacher, would place construction paper over the window in the classroom door. He ordered all the girls to sit in front of him and the boys to sit along the walls, Gonzalez said.
She said that when a girl had questions about her computer, Butler would lean over her from behind and place his cheek near the girl’s.
She said rumors circulated about Butler and DeRosa, the older girl who is not a party to the case. Gonzalez also said there was a story that Butler projected a photo of two naked girls kissing on the wall of the school cafeteria from his laptop computer, although Gonzalez said she didn’t see that herself.
The incident was reported to her homeroom teacher, who said she reported it to Muscatello.
Gonzalez said some “animated porn” was found on a girl’s computer which she said Butler controlled. And he used to look at porn in class. There was a lot of “class chatter,” she said.
“We would say in front of other teachers that Mr. Butler was a pervert,” Gonzalez testified. “They would just tell us not to talk like that about a teacher.”
Gonzalez said she was affected for a while but rebounded thanks to her strong family support. At the same time she was giving depositions in the case, her younger brother was still attending St. Dominic Savio.
Gonzalez said she attended weekly Mass throughout her time at St. Dominic Savio and Niagara Catholic High School and did not ask to be excused from Mass attendance or from Butler’s classes. But she said she refused to be confirmed.
During cross-examination by Braun, Gonzalez said, “I won’t go to church, and my [future] kids definitely won’t go to Catholic school,” Gonzalez said.