Lawsuit filed in Tampa documents child sex abuse case at defunct Catholic school

Filed in Tampa, the allegations by a former Mary Help of Christians student join others.
Published March 8 2016
Updated March 9 2016

TAMPA — A decade after a Catholic school closed its doors, a former student who says he was sexually abused by a teacher on multiple occasions in the 1970s is suing the organization that ran Mary Help of Christians School.

Although Brother John Casula died in 1994, the lawsuit names the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic order dedicated to helping disadvantaged children. It is the latest lawsuit against the now-defunct 140-acre boarding school documenting child sexual abuse by priests and brothers of the order.

"Each person that comes forward brings forth a little more of the truth, which serves to protect children in the future," said Joseph Saunders, a Pinellas Park attorney representing the man in the latest case, filed Tuesday in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Officials at the Salesian Society office in New Rochelle, N.Y., did not return calls for comment.

According to the 26-page complaint, the victim, identified only as John Doe, started attending the boarding school at age 12 in 1976.

In an interview Tuesday, the man said he was an at-risk kid who lived in a single-parent household. At Mary Help, he made friends and became an athlete, playing basketball, football, and baseball.

But there were dark moments throughout his two-year stay at the school at 6400 E Chelsea St. After dinner in the evenings, the boy attended Mass. Casula, who joined the order in 1941 and was the school's auto shop instructor, would approach him and direct him to the shop, the complaint states.

"Brother Casula would show Plaintiff all the interesting engines and projects his students were working on," the complaint says. Eventually, the abuse began in the back of the shop, where there were no windows.

The abuse spanned the two years John Doe lived at the school, totaling more than 20 instances, according to the lawsuit.

The man didn't speak about what happened to anyone until last year, when he saw a newspaper article about another sex abuse case at Mary Help. He contacted Saunders and told his story for the first time.

"I didn't have anyone to go to. I couldn't go to my family. I didn't have a father figure," he said. "I could not go to my mother because whatever the church said, or a brother or a priest said, that was it."

Throughout the years, while attending some events at the school, he saw Casula occasionally. He always wanted to approach him with one question: Why me? But the man said he could never bring himself to ask.

The lawsuit states that the Salesians of Don Bosco failed to protect John Doe and were negligent because they knew Casula had a history of molesting children. In 1977, another student reported abuse by Casula, but the school did not report it to police, according to the complaint.

Mary Help of Christians School stopped housing students in 1996 and became coed in 2000. In 2006, citing declining attendance, it closed. Now, the property is home to the Mary Help of Christians Center, the Korean Catholic Mission of Tampa, and the Salesian Boys & Girls Club, according to its website. There is also a retirement community of Salesian members.

Since 2002, about 10 other former students have come forward with allegations against priests and brothers. There was the case of a student who said he was molested by a music teacher in the 1980s. In another, a priest was accused of fondling a boy at the back of an altar. Some lawsuits resulted in confidential cash settlements.

"These cases aren't just about money. No amount of money can bring back the innocence of a child," said Saunders, the attorney in the latest case who has represented other Mary Help former students. "These cases are also about healing and helping protect children in the future."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.

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