Vanessa De Rosa was in eighth grade in 2002, when, she says, her computer teacher at St. Dominic Savio Middle School in Niagara Falls went to her cheerleading practices, offered her rides home and suggested that they have sex in the back of his car.
The following year, seventh-graders Amanda Gill and Noelle Gonzalez had computer class with the same teacher, Christian Butler.
Butler put his hand on Gill’s leg, and began moving his hand up her thigh as she was sitting in class, Gill said.
He also had pornographic pop-ups on the computers in his classes, according to Gonzalez, including one animated pop-up that resembled Gonzalez, she said.
Butler was arrested in June 2004, and pleaded guilty in December 2004 to child pornography and endangering the welfare of a child. He served almost four years of prison time.
But today, a trial begins in Niagara County Supreme Court on whether St. Dominic Savio Middle School and the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo ignored student complaints about Butler for two years, allowing him to continue his inappropriate behavior at the expense of his students.
The case is filed by Gill and her family; however, testimony by DeRosa and Gonzalez is expected to be heard during the two-week trial.
An attorney for the school, Sharon A. Swift, declined to comment, and the attorney for the Catholic School Network, John Visco, declined to comment.
Lawrence J. Vilardo, whose firm Connors & Vilardo represents the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, said he cannot speak for the school-level officials, but said that the diocese took action in 2004 as soon as it was made aware of any accusations against Butler.
“When the diocese found out, it followed policy and cooperated with authorities,” Vilardo said. “We cooperated immediately.”
In late May 2004, Vilardo said, school administrator Father Stewart Lindsay got a complaint from a parent concerned that there could be animated pornography on Butler’s school computers. Lindsay began an investigation, determined Butler’s computer may have been inappropriately used, and contacted diocesan offices, Vilardo said. That was the first the diocese was aware of the problem, he said.
Butler was then suspended on June 4, Vilardo said.
Butler’s computer was turned over to police, who had begun their own investigation at about the same time, Vilardo said.
The former students and their parents were interviewed Sunday at the Amherst office of their attorney, Steven M. Cohen, with the law firm of HoganWillig. They said the students had been complaining to the school principal and school administrator since 2002. They said neither principal Patricia Muscatello nor Lindsay did anything about the student concerns, basically dismissing the complaints as lies or exaggerations.
“We were made to feel like it was our fault,” Gill said.
What’s more, the students said, the case didn’t get to the police until DeRosa filed a complaint with the Niagara Falls Police Department. The school officials, the students and parents charge, did not act until the police became involved.
DeRosa quietly, and with little emotion, spoke Sunday of her eighth-grade experience with Butler.
“He followed me everywhere,” she recalled. “He would whistle at me. He touched my butt. He told me he wanted to see me naked.”
DeRosa said he also went to cheerleading practice, then would follow her home and ask if she wanted a ride in his car.
“He would bring up having sex in the back of his car,” she said.
DeRosa, who was 13 or 14 at the time, said she told the school principal and assistant principal about Butler’s behavior, but nothing was done. She got the impression, she said, that the administrators didn’t believe her.
DeRosa said her father also met with Butler and the school principal. During the meeting, DeRosa said, Butler acknowledged crudely complimenting Vanessa on her body.
The principal didn’t take any action against Butler, DeRosa said.
The principal, who has since resigned, was not available for comment Sunday.
DeRosa said she also tried to talk with Lindsay, the school administrator.
“Father Stew didn’t want to hear any of it,” she said. “Nobody was going to do anything.”
After graduating from St. Dominic Savio Middle School, and while attending Niagara Catholic High School, DeRosa said she continued hearing of middle school students being sexually harassed by Butler.
She called 911, and reported what was going on, DeRosa said.
“I was approached by other girls having problems,” she said.
DeRosa didn’t identify the other girls, but said Noelle Gonzalez and Amanda Gill were not among those she heard from.
Gill and Gonzalez said they both had Butler as a teacher in sixth grade, and found his class uncomfortable.
It was when she was in seventh grade, Gill said, that Butler had his hand on her thigh, and was inching his hand toward her underwear before she got up out of the chair.
Gill said she began crying hysterically after leaving the class, and rarely returned to his class for the rest of the year.
Gill said the incident, and the non-response she received from the school when complaining about it, left her emotionally scarred and distrustful of people.
In discussing the effects of their experiences with Butler, and their school’s response, all three young women said their attitude toward the Catholic Church has changed. The three said their religion had once been very important to them, but now they feel alienated from it.