A Niagara Falls woman is suing the Diocese of Buffalo alleging that church officials failed to act against a middle school teacher she said sexually abused and harassed her more than a decade ago.
Vanessa DeRosa, 29, is the second person in Western New York to file a civil suit against the diocese since the passage of the Child Victims Act, which extends the statute of limitations for an accuser to take legal action.
“They completely ignored me,” DeRosa told News 4 Investigates of how officials at the diocese and St. Dominic Savior middle school handled her complaints.
“They said they would investigate it and they said they found nothing and they said I was lying.”
Christian M. Butler, the computer teacher, did end up going to prison, but only after DeRosa called police on him after another female student told her that the abuse had continued at the middle school.
DeRosa is also suing the middle school, which closed in 2012 and remains vacant, and the Niagara Falls Catholic Network.
Steve Cohen, an attorney for HoganWillig, which is the first local law firm to file a case under the Child Victims Act, said he is particularly enthusiastic about pursuing justice for DeRosa because of how she helped get justice for others abused by Butler.
“Vanessa DeRosa is nothing less than a hero,” Cohen said.
DeRosa accuses the diocese and school officials of creating a “hostile and unsafe school environment that no child would be able to tolerate.”
In 2005, Butler pleaded guilty to charges of possessing child porn and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Two years later, he was served a four-year prison sentence for violating his probation. Today, he is back in prison for violating his probation again by failing to register as a sex offender in Florida, according to that state’s registry records.
DeRosa said Butler had sexually assaulted and harassed her from September 2002 through July 2004, but that school and diocesan officials ignored her and others who had filed complaints about the teacher.
The inaction, which the diocese has disputed in the past, allowed Butler to continue teaching at the middle school, where he abused more children.
DeRosa said Butler asked her several times to stay after class to talk. On at least one occasion, he asked her to get naked. She said Butler would follow her home from her cheerleading games and had asked her to get in his car to have sex. He would chase her around the school, sometimes hitting her, and would make lewd comments about her anatomy.
DeRosa alleges that numerous students, parents, teachers and at least one administrator of the school complained to Patricia Muscatello, the school principal, and The Rev. Stewart Lindsay, about Butler.
DeRosa recounted when she told Lindsay about the abuse.
“He actually didn’t even want me to talk,” she said.
“He actually physically put his fingers in his ears and said ‘la-la-la, I’m not listening to you,’ raised his voice, was very aggressive, just completely shut me down.”
Muscatello did not return messages seeking comment.
Lindsay told News 4 Investigates that, “I don’t have to talk to you” before hanging up the phone. Lindsay, an order priest, now is the senior parochial vicar at Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Niagara Falls and a chaplain for Mt. St. Mary’s Hospital and Health Center in Lewiston.
The diocese said Thursday that it has not been served with the complaint, and declined to comment.
Butler taught at the school until 2004.
“She graduated and then went on to high school, then she found out that at least two other female students were being abused by Christian Butler and that was when she decided to – and I don’t say this word lightly – be a hero,” said her other attorney, William Lorenz Jr.
That is when DeRosa called police. Police charged Butler with downloading child porn on his school computer, inappropriately touching a minor and making sexual comments toward another girl.
“When she told me that the same exact things were still happening, and everybody was just letting it happen, that was definitely the last straw for me,” DeRosa said.
The lawsuit states that DeRosa has sustained psychological injuries and continues to suffer from emotional pain.
“I want what happened to me to not happen to anybody else,” DeRosa said.
This is the second civil lawsuit to be filed in Western New York since the passage of the act.
Last month, Gale Holler-Kennedy, 55, of North Tonawanda, filed a civil suit against the diocese for abuse that began in September 1978 by an order priest while she was a student at Cardinal O’Hara High School.