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Diocese ends Central Catholic's football season

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

By Jan Ackerman and Mike White, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese officials have barred Central Catholic High School from participating in the WPIAL football playoffs because of allegations that players were aware that a sexual assault occurred in the school's locker room last summer but didn't come forward when asked for information.

The decision angered several parents, some of whom were considering legal action.

"It is not fair to punish 70 or 80 kids for a couple kids' stupid actions," said Mark Tishko of Mount Washington, whose 15-year-old son, Mark, is a sophomore offensive lineman.

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Central finished the season with six wins and three losses and was in third place in the Quad East Conference.

In a letter to the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, Central Catholic administrators said:

"Due to the severity of the situation, the school administration, in conjunction with the Diocese of Pittsburgh, feels that it must make a strong statement that this type of action will not be tolerated."

Central Catholic's withdrawal came less than a week after two players -- a 15-year-old sophomore from Lincoln-Lemington and a 16-year-old junior from the North Side -- were charged with sexually assaulting a 15-year-old teammate during what police believe was a hazing incident Aug. 15 following a football practice.

The suspects are accused of restraining the 15-year-old victim and slapping him in the face with their genitals, an act known as "tea-bagging."

The parents of the victim said they took the matter to police only after getting no satisfaction from school officials, who they say stonewalled the investigation.

In the statement yesterday to the WPIAL, Central officials acknowledged for the first time that other players witnessed the incident but did not tell school officials about it.

"In a meeting with members of the football team, we have been made aware that other players were present for and witnessed the alleged incident and did not alert the coaches or school administrators, nor did they come forward when initially asked for information," the school said.

By the time the school's withdrawal from the WPIAL playoffs was announced last night, it already had reverberated through the halls of the all-boys Catholic school in Oakland and through the families of the players." This whole season is gone," said Tishko, who learned about the development when he picked up his son from football practice.

Missie Stewart of Greenfield said her son, 17-year-old Joe Garrison, an offensive tackle, was "devastated" by the school's actions. She said she was going to seek legal advice.

Another woman who wouldn't identify herself said parents who were speaking out did not represent the consensus of the school's football boosters organization. She said many parents were not saying anything on the advice of their attorneys.

During last night's WPIAL playoff pairings meeting in Green Tree, WPIAL Director Larry Hanley said he was told that one parent planned to seek an injunction in court overturning the school's withdrawal.

WPIAL President Tim O'Malley said he had heard of other threatened court action and said the organization would fight any legal assault by the parents.

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, diocesan spokesman, said the decision was made jointly by the Rev. Kris Stubna, education secretary for the diocese, and school administrators at Central. He said Stubna will answer questions about the decision at a news conference today.

One parent said her son and other players were called in by Central Catholic administrators and told that they had to give school officials the names of five youths who had knowledge of the incident.

Yesterday morning, Central Catholic officials informed the WPIAL that there was a possibility they might withdraw. At about 4 p.m., they made it official. Neither Central Catholic Athletic Director Larry Michelangelo nor head Coach Art Walker Jr. would comment.

The mother of the 15-year-old boy who made the allegations said her family was unhappy about the way school officials handled the complaint.

"I feel bad that the team is being punished for two players and the school officials who tried to push it under the rug," the boy's mother said last night. The Post-Gazette does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

"I guess [school] officials thought that if they didn't come up with anything, we'd go away," she said. "We are not blaming the teachers because Central Catholic is a first-rate school. But we are blaming the principal, vice principal and Coach Walker for the way they handled the situation. It was not handled at all."

Since the incident became public, the mother said, both her husband and son have been threatened. She said her son has received at least one threatening e-mail and her husband has received several phone calls from parents accusing him of making up the story.

"My son is upset," she continued. "I can understand him having to shave his head, but when you put your penis in a child's face that is different. It is our responsibility to protect our child."

The boy is now attending another school.

Last Thursday, the two suspects were arrested by city police and charged with indecent assault, unlawful restraint, involuntary servitude and conspiracy. They were fingerprinted and photographed at the Allegheny County Jail and then released to their parents pending a juvenile court hearing.

The two players were immediately suspended from school and are off the football team.

Staff writer Nate Guidry contributed to this report.

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370. Mike White can be reached at mwhite@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1975.

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