LOCKPORT – Two former students of St. Dominic Savio Middle School in Niagara Falls will receive cash payments under terms of a settlement of their lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, the school and the Niagara Falls Catholic School Network.
The suit was filed over harassment of the girls between 2002 and 2004 by teacher Christian Butler, who later served four years in prison for possessing child pornography on his school computer and for two counts of child endangerment.
The lawsuit also charged school and diocesan officials with failing to respond adequately to students’ complaints about Butler’s behavior before Niagara Falls police arrested him in 2004.
The amount of the payments was kept confidential, and Michael J. Roach of the Connors & Vilardo law firm, representing the diocese, said the diocese “was not a party that contributed to the settlement,” even though it was a defendant in the lawsuit.
“It was a party, but it was not a party that contributed to the settlement of this matter,” Roach said. He said that plaintiff Amanda Gill will be paid by the school and that plaintiff Noelle Gonzalez will be paid by the Catholic School Network.
However, two sources with knowledge of the matter, who said they could not be identified because of a gag order in the case, said the diocese has a single self-insurance fund that covers all schools and parishes, and the money would come from the diocese’s self-insurance fund.
Roach wouldn’t confirm that. “The resolution of that case does not in any way involve settlement by the Diocese of Buffalo,” he insisted.
Steven M. Cohen of the Hogan Willig law firm, who represented the women, responded: “We have had successful negotiations with Connors & Vilardo, and the matter has been settled to the satisfaction of all parties.”
Other attorneys in the case – John M. Visco of Ricotta & Visco, for the network, and Beverley Braun of Jaeckle Fleischman & Mugel, for the school – did not return calls seeking comment.
Roach pointed out that State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr., who presided over a nonjury trial that began Monday, had dismissed Gonzalez’s claims against the diocese, leaving the diocese as a defendant only against Gill.
The women, both now 22, accused Butler of behavior that Gonzalez, on the witness stand, called “creepy.”
They also accused St. Dominic Savio Principal Patricia Muscatello and the Rev. Stewart Lindsay, the canonical administrator assigned to oversee the school, of blocking complaints about Butler.
Butler also was a defendant in the suit, but he is reportedly living in Florida and took no part in it.
Gonzalez and her father were the only witnesses who took the stand before the trial was interrupted for what now appears to have been settlement talks.
Kloch said in court that the attorneys were discussing “confidential evidentiary matters” in his chambers.
Kloch had said even before Gonzalez took the stand that her alleged damages were “de minimus,” a legal term meaning “minimal.”
Gill was the more severely impacted, Cohen said in court.
Had the trial continued, Gill and another former student, Vanessa DeRosa, who was not a party to the lawsuit, were expected to testify in greater detail about Butler’s actions and about the fruitless complaints.
Attorneys for the diocese and the school protested Cohen’s plan to call DeRosa to the witness stand although she had not given a pretrial deposition. Visco said it could have resulted in a mistrial.
He also objected in a similar way to a statement by Cohen that when Father Lindsay met with DeRosa about Butler, “He stuck his fingers in his ears and went ‘La-la-la-la-la.’ ”
Visco called that statement “categorically false.”