A lawsuit by a student alleging sexual abuse by wrestling coaches at Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, N.J., and the subsequent strong response by the school, the head coach, wrestlers and alumni to denounce the accusations paint vastly different pictures of one of the premier athletic programs in New Jersey.
The picture drawn by the student’s lawyers in court papers last week is of a coaching staff running a rogue program who took advantage of vulnerable wrestlers and was enabled by administrators who did not take complaints seriously.
The perspective of the program’s defenders portrays the accusations as motivated by revenge — an angry parent retaliating against a revered head coach because his son lost a coveted role on the team.
Where the truth lies is uncertain at this early stage of legal proceedings.
Lawyers for the student say they expect more victims to come forward to bolster their case. Defenders of head coach David Bell say the lawsuit is frivolous and expect that he will be quickly vindicated.
Although school officials believe the case has no merit, they have referred it to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, which would not comment on whether it was investigating the matter. In addition, the school has contacted the state Division of Youth and Family Services to also investigate the claims. A spokesman for the agency could not comment.
In an interview last week, one of the student’s lawyers said her client is receiving a tremendous amount of backlash even though he has left the school.
Although he is not named in the lawsuit, the student’s identity is widely known among the Bergen Catholic community and wrestling circles. Sean Pena, Bell’s lawyer, is seeking court approval to publicly identify the minor, saying it will ensure that the coach’s “exoneration will be as public as the accusations.”
Diana Warshow, one of the student’s lawyers, likened aspects of the case to both the #MeToo movement and the Penn State football scandal, where supporters of the program fiercely defended legendary head coach Joe Paterno when he was accused of failing to take action against assistant Jerry Sandusky for sexually assaulting boys.
“I think, and we’ve seen it before with other coaches and in different sports and in professions and in the #MeToo movement, that just because someone has a positive reputation and is revered by many doesn‘t mean the person is not capable of committing bad acts,” said Warshow, of Nesenoff and Miltenberg, a general practice New York law firm that has gained attention in recent years for defending male college students accused of assaulting women on college campuses. “I hope the public keeps that in mind. We know there was a huge scandal at Penn State regarding a revered figure and it was hard for people to wrap their heads around it. It’s unfortunate that people are quick to dismiss the reputation of the plaintiff, and we hope they consider all possibilities.”
Bell’s attorney would not comment except a statement he released Monday defending the coach. The school’s attorney, Anthony Dougherty, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
What the public is left with are two immensely different narratives of the Bergen Catholic wrestling program under Bell’s leadership.
At the center is the student, a junior, who the lawsuit says was bullied as a child and found refuge in wrestling, which gave him a newfound self-confidence in his teenage years.
Bell spoke favorably in public about the student late last year, saying he had worked hard to get into regular rotation, beating out more experienced wrestlers in his weight class. The student went on to compete at some high-profile out-of-state tournaments this season.
But things began to unravel early in the new year.
Social media posts last week by supporters of the program say the student lost his starting spot in January, which angered his father.
In a statement after the lawsuit was made public last week, Bell’s lawyer said the family was acting out of spite due to the coach’s decision.
“When people fall short, far too often rather than taking accountability for their own shortcomings, they look to strike a blow at anyone they perceive is the reason for their failure,” Pena said.
The lawsuit said the student’s parents contacted Principal Timothy McElhinney in January to say their son was being bullied and that the wrestling program was out of control in Bell’s hands.
In the lawsuit, the parents say Donnie Spataro showed nude pictures of himself to other wrestlers on his mobile phone at the “Beast of the East” wrestling tournament in December in Delaware. A month later, the lawsuit says, Spataro showed the student nude pornographic photographs during a trip to the Doc Buchanan Invitational wrestling event in California.
It also said Bell “inappropriately” undressed with minors and watched wrestlers, including the student filing the lawsuit, change in the locker room. Bell said the student was “shredded” in his muscular physique and texted and emailed that he loved the student.
Some of those acts could be seen as innocuous — the regular, everyday undertakings of a high school coach. The student’s lawyer said that taken in totality, the acts are inappropriate.
“It can be seen as innocent, but taken all together it can be seen as crossing the line,” Warshow said.
The parents also expressed concern to McElhinney, the principal, that a former assistant wrestling coach was allowed back into the wrestling room after leaving the school in January 2016, according to the suit.
That coach resigned from the school for “personal reasons,” Bell said at the time. The lawsuit says he was let go for “severely bullying another minor wrestler” and that Bell recently allowed him back in the wrestling room.
Lack of information
The most serious allegations in the lawsuit are also the ones with the least information.
The lawsuit alleges two incidences of sexual assault on other wrestlers in the program.
It says the parents spoke to McElhinney about another minor being sexually assaulted in the wrestling room in October 2016.
The lawsuit also says the coaches “induced a freshman wrestler to not make a police report for being sexually attacked and assaulted by a senior wrestler in the wrestling room.” No more information is given on either alleged assault.
Warshow said she was not at liberty to divulge more details on the alleged incidents or how the lawyers received information about them.
The lawsuit says that despite their taking their concerns to McElhinney, the principal told the parents they were “deflecting” from the issue, which was not allowing the teen’s father to visit his son in the wrestling room and locker room.
After speaking with the principal, the parents sent a certified letter on Jan. 29 to Brother Brian Walsh, the school president, demanding an update on the investigation after telephone calls and emails had gone “virtually unanswered.”
The next day, Walsh wrote an email to the father saying he had spoken to Bell and that the teen was “no longer on the team.”
The lawsuit initially was filed shortly thereafter in February, when the student’s mother was named as a plaintiff. That complaint was filed by a Fort Lee attorney who apparently is related to the student. An amended complaint was filed in March by the New York firm, and the defendants were notified of the lawsuit last Monday.
“This is not the first time Coach Bell has been baselessly attacked, and regrettably it’s unlikely to be the last,” Pena said in a statement Monday. “When you have reached the pinnacle of your profession, people will do anything to try to tear you and what you build down.”
The student suffered “extreme emotional distress,” the lawsuit says. He was “blackballed” by the Bergen Catholic administration from transferring to St. Joseph’s in Montvale or Paramus Catholic. It said the teen was being recruited as a wrestler by NYU, Columbia University, Brown and Princeton, and those prospects are in jeopardy. Warshow said the student is now enrolled at a public school.
“It has nothing to do about getting time on the mat,” Warshow said. “The parents’ main objective is making sure this doesn’t happen. It’s about seeking justice and protecting others from future wrongs.”