Catholic School Let Wrestling Coaches Sexually Abuse Up to 100 Students, Lawsuit Claims

The 12-count complaint claims that the school worked with Newark Archdiocese officials to protect the wrestling coaches from ‘criminal detection.’

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A former wrestler claims that he was sexually and verbally abused by wrestling coaches at a Catholic high school in New Jersey—and that when he reported the misconduct to administrators, he was kicked off the nationally recognized team.

Coaches at Bergen Catholic High School shared pornographic images, watched students undress, and sent inappropriate messages to up to 100 athletes, according to a 29-page lawsuit filed by John Doe. The 12-count civil complaint was first reported on Monday by NorthJersey.com. It was filed on March 26 in state Superior Court in Bergen County.

The other 99 possible victims, who have not been identified, were mentioned in the complaint in the event other plaintiffs join the suit, Doe’s attorney told the news site. He said he expects “additional victims and witnesses to come forward” once the case receives media coverage.

The counts include sexual abuse of a minor, retaliation, emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty, negligent hiring, breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, defamation, and civil conspiracy to endanger children, among other charges. Doe, who has demanded a jury trial, is requesting compensatory and punitive damages.

The complaint names numerous defendants: the school itself; the Archdiocese of Newark; school president Brother Brian Walsh; Head Wrestling Coach David Bell; Assistant Coach Dominick “Donnie” Spataro; Principal Timothy McElhinney; and Athletic Director Jack McGovern.

From September 2015 through January 2018, the defendants allegedly failed to protect Doe from “verbal abuse, sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexually inappropriate conduct,” according to the lawsuit.

David Bell, the head wrestling coach, “inappropriately undressed with minors and watched wrestlers, including [Doe], change in the locker room, where they were completely nude or partially nude,” the complaint claims. He also allegedly told Doe that he was “shredded” and “texted and emailed [Doe] that he loved him, as well as other highly inappropriate and sexual predatory behavior on a minor child.”

“Bell has a history of allowing bullying and sexual abuse to continue” at the school “under his command and control of the team,” according to the complaint.

Spataro, the assistant wrestling coach, “showed pornographic and nude photographs of himself and others on his mobile phone to [Doe] and other minor wrestlers” on the team, the complaint alleges. Those photographs included pictures of his penis, according to the lawsuit.

Doe’s parents allegedly confronted school administrators about their concerns on numerous occasions, especially after learning about other cases against the school, the complaint says. In one of those cases, the school paid out a nearly $2-million settlement to 21 claimants who were victims of child sex abuse decades earlier. Those students, who were abused between 1963 and 1968, were anywhere from 13 to 17 years old at the time of the assaults.

Despite the new allegations, the school “failed to properly investigate the complaints made by [Doe’s] parents, and the administration of Bergen Catholic High School failed to report multiple allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement,” according to the lawsuit.

Newark Archdiocese spokesman Jim Goodness told NJ.com on Monday that the school did notify the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office of the allegations but could not confirm when the report occurred.

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Eventually, Doe’s parents sent a certified letter to Brother Walsh asking for an update on any investigation of the accusations, according to the lawsuit. In response, Walsh allegedly removed Doe from the team.

As a result, Doe “was caused to suffer extreme emotional distress, was deprived of the opportunity to wrestle in tournaments, was academically compromised, and was forced to transfer schools due to the defendants’ smearing, slandering and engaging in libel, as well as defendants’ ‘blackballing’ of [Doe] from transferring” to two different schools, the complaint states.

Even now, according to the lawsuit, the school’s officials “continue to retaliate against [Doe], who they abused, intimidated, discriminated against, and violated while under their care.”

Brother Walsh, the school’s president, has issued a statement denying the lawsuit’s claims.

“The administration has zero tolerance for the actions alleged in this complaint—and consistent with our zero tolerance policy and protocols, despite not having been served the complaint until today, the administration reported these allegations to the Archdiocese of Newark and the Bergen County prosecutor’s office when it first learned of them,” he said.

“With that said, the administration believes that this lawsuit is based on allegations that are unfounded, frivolous and untrue,” Walsh continued. “The administration will vigorously defend against these false and baseless allegations.”

Meanwhile, Bell’s lawyer threatened legal action against local media for covering the story and later issued a statement claiming the lawsuit was baseless and that the allegations were “demonstrably false.”

Spataro’s attorney also called the accusations “false, defamatory and made for an improper purpose.”