Members of a Catholic high school’s football team in Indianapolis are under investigation by police for allegedly abusing and harassing their 15-year-old team manager, who has Down syndrome.
The Roncalli High School athletes are accused of forcing the boy to lick and suck another male student’s nipple in the locker room before the team’s homecoming game, WTHR-TV and The Indianapolis Star reported.
“It feels very much like a betrayal from the school and from the Catholic Church,” the boy’s mother, Lesli Woodruff, told The Star on Tuesday. Woodruff said the Sept. 27 incident was the second time in three weeks that her son had been harassed.
Woodruff identified her son Jack by his first name to multiple local news outlets. His last name, which is different from his mother’s, has been shielded from the public to protect his identity. The Daily Beast does not name victims of sexual abuse without their consent.
Woodruff told the newspaper that, until recently, her son loved football and idolized the boys on the team, which has won nine state championships.
“We absolutely felt like he was welcomed into that school community with open arms,” Woodruff said to The Star, noting that she chose Roncalli so that Jack would not be segregated into separate classes for students with disabilities. “Until this happened, I didn’t have any reason to believe otherwise.”
But on Sept. 9, Jack reportedly told his mother over dinner that “something disturbing” happened at football practice. One of the players, she told the newspaper, had taken a video of Jack urinating and said he planned to post it on Snapchat. Woodruff said she immediately emailed her son’s teacher about the incident.
Roncalli Dean of Students Tim Crissman reportedly told her that he investigated, found the video, and made sure that it was never posted online. Crissman said he had the student delete the footage on his phone while he watched to ensure that it was gone.
“The student responsible for the video was talked to,” Crissman reportedly wrote in an email to Woodruff, according to The Star. “We spent a considerable amount of time discussing the extremely poor decision making that went into the creation of (the) video. We came on very strong with the young man.”
“We have talked to the coach about the need to continuously remind players about the expectation of individual privacy within the locker room,” Crissman reportedly added.
The teacher allegedly told Woodruff that the student who took the video would serve an after-school detention but still dress for the next football game. The team, the Rebels, continued the season, making it to the regional championship game, where they lost on Nov. 15.
On Sept. 27, the boy who allegedly took the video purportedly threatened to kill Woodruff’s 5-foot-4-inch son—and his family—if he ever told on him again. A different boy on the team then allegedly forced Jack to suck his nipple in front of at least 11 others, some of whom shot video of the incident while laughing, The Star reported. Woodruff told WTHR-TV that she learned about the incident through a letter from a parent of another student who witnessed it.
“He said they threatened to kill myself, my husband, and Jack, and they described in detail how they would cut us open and kill us if he didn’t follow their instructions,” Woodruff said. “That was his punishment for telling on them and bringing to light that others had actually watched the original video of him going to the bathroom. He hasn’t been the same kid since.”
Afterward, Woodruff hired an attorney and filed a report with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, which is reported to have opened an investigation into alleged child molestation and forcible fondling. Days later, Woodruff removed Jack from the school and hired him a therapist, both outlets reported.
“I very much feel like my son’s life is considered disposable because he’s not a star athlete. He’s not contributing to the overall success of the football program,” Woodruff told the newspaper. “It was easy for them to walk away and not support him.”
A spokesperson for the Indiana Metropolitan Police Department did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment by The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
In a letter to Woodruff’s attorney provided to WTHR-TV, a lawyer for the archdiocese, John “Jay” Mercer, reportedly acknowledged “how poorly this matter has been handled” and the fact that the boy and his family “were let down by Roncalli and its coaches,” who did not provide him “the safe environment that he was entitled to.”
Archdiocese of Indianapolis spokesman Greg Otolski told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that the incident was reported to the Department of Child Services, that the school is cooperating with investigations, and that some students have been suspended and “one is no longer attending Roncalli.”
In addition to his statement, Otolski pointed to another story in The Star, in which Mercer claimed that the Woodruff family asked for $150,000 in exchange for keeping the story about the abuse Jack purportedly suffered out of the press. Johnson confirmed the financial demand, noting: “If anything, that figure is probably low.”
In his response to the demand letter, Mercer reportedly offered to provide help and counseling to Jack and to hold a meeting with the archbishop’s leadership team.
“We really wanted to reach out to the family and try to make a pastoral approach,” Mercer told The Star. “Apparently that’s not what they were interested in.”
In a statement to the community after the story broke, Roncalli President Joe Hollowell wrote that, although the school cannot “discuss disciplinary consequences” for individual students, “please know that any student responsible for bullying and/or inappropriate conduct toward another student has been and will be disciplined appropriately.”
“Following the outcome of the ongoing police investigation, further disciplinary action may be taken,” said Hollowell.
“The safety and well-being of every student is of utmost importance to us,” he added. “We remain confident that Roncalli offers an exceptional education and faith formation experience in a safe, secure environment.”
The school has been the subject of other news headlines over the past few weeks, when its former chaplain was arrested in a sex-abuse case involving a minor and a discrimination complaint was filed after an employee at the school was allegedly fired for supporting two colleagues who were dismissed for being in same-sex marriages.
The purported abuse of Jack is also just one of many group hazing and sexual-assault incidents reported on high-school football teams all over the country in recent years, from Texas and Arizona to Maryland and California. In fact, an investigation two years ago by the Associated Press found upward of 70 cases of scholastic sports-related sexual assaults over five years, beginning in 2011.
“These things do happen in your backyard,” Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and expert witness in hazing cases, recently told The Daily Beast. “The truth is, this is a human behavior that seems to be rampant in high schools in colleges. The sooner we pay attention to it, the sooner we can stop it.”
Neither Mercer nor Woodruff’s attorney, Johnson, immediately responded to a request for comment by The Daily Beast on Wednesday.