Wrestler at center of Bergen Catholic sex abuse lawsuit speaks out for first time

Photo: Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com

Wrestler at center of Bergen Catholic sex abuse lawsuit speaks out for first time

Wrestling

Wrestler at center of Bergen Catholic sex abuse lawsuit speaks out for first time

The text message arrived just before 1 p.m. on a Monday in July 2016.

Anthony “Tony” Asatrian, then 16 and about to begin his sophomore year at Bergen Catholic (N.J.) High School, was sitting in the kitchen of his family’s Paramus home, snacking on a bowl of Cheerios.

Asatrian glanced at his phone and noticed a familiar name — his wrestling coach at Bergen Catholic, David Bell.

What would unfold in the following minutes has now emerged as a key moment in an ongoing and controversial lawsuit in which Asatrian accuses Bell and others at Bergen Catholic of sex abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. The lawsuit also references text messages in which Bell told Asatrian that “he loved him.”

“I will miss you, think about you and coach better in your spirit,” Bell wrote that day to Asatrian before leaving on a coaching trip. Bell added “love you Tony” after Asatrian texted in response that he wished him well and would “miss you too.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” Asatrian recalled thinking as he read his coach’s text. “I didn’t want to be disrespectful.”

So Asatrian texted back: “Love you too coach.”

Friday’s hearing comes in the wake of two other significant decisions by authorities. In May, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to pursue criminal charges, citing a lack of evidence. In July, the state Department of Children and Families concluded that the allegations of sexual abuse were unfounded.

How those decisions will ultimately affect Asatrian’s civil lawsuit still remains to be seen. Nonetheless, Asatrian’s accusations, which have been vigorously denied by Bell, Bergen Catholic officials and their attorneys since they were made public earlier this year, have raised serious questions about the school’s wrestling program, which has been ranked as one of the best in America in recent years. His lawsuit also is viewed by some as a potential test of the limits coaches should follow in communicating with young athletes in an age of rapid-fire texting and social media.

Until now Asatrian has never been identified in the media. Nor has he spoken publicly.

In his lawsuit last March, filed six weeks after he was booted off the Bergen Catholic wrestling squad and then voluntarily withdrew from the school, Asatrian was identified only by a standard legal moniker to preserve his anonymity: “John Doe.” But, in response to requests from NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey, Asatrian, who is now 18 and a senior at Paramus High School, agreed to discuss his claims.

He also allowed the Network to examine 94 text messages from his coach — the first of them arriving in February 2016, when Asatrian was a 15-year-old freshman and just after he received a new cell phone. The final text from his coach arrived nearly two years later — only hours before Asatrian was dismissed from the Bergen Catholic wrestling team in an email from the school’s then-president.

The texts, which were verified last month by a forensic examiner hired by Asatrian’s attorneys, were mentioned in the original lawsuit and its amended versions. Although the texts themselves have not been filed with the court, they appear to have emerged as a cornerstone in Asatrian’s efforts to prove he was the victim of a sexually abusive environment on the wrestling team — and, by extension, at Bergen Catholic High School, which is in Oradell.

During more than six hours of interviews, Asatrian described how his dream to become a top wrestler on Bergen Catholic’s nationally ranked team had become muddled and ultimately derailed by the steady stream of personal texts from his coach.

So far, Bell has declined to comment. The texts, meanwhile, are open to interpretation.

The text messages

Critics might view the texts as inappropriate, all-too-personal overtures by a coach — in particular, the nearly dozen occasions when Bell told Asatrian he loved him, wondered about his whereabouts and missed his company, even adding a red heart-shaped emoji to a few messages.

But Bell’s supporters could also see the stream of personal texts as genuine expressions of affection from a coach who has been described by some of his wrestlers as a “father figure.”

Yet a third possibility is that the legal dispute — with the texts as a centerpiece — are the result of a tragic misunderstanding between a coach and a young athlete.

The timing of the texts varied considerably — and this has caused some experts to question Bell’s judgment. Some texts came during school hours, some on weekends, some during the off-season — long after Bergen Catholic’s wrestling season ended or before it was scheduled to begin again. Others arrived at night when Asatrian was home with his family.

Just after 5 p.m. on a Wednesday in November 2016, when Asatrian was absent from school, Bell texted: “Tony! Are you sick. I missed you terribly today. The room is not the same without you. School is not the same either.”

On a Tuesday morning six months later, when Asatrian was absent again, Bell wrote: “It’s never the same when you’re not in school.”

Asatrian responded, “Why not?”

Bell answered: “You make the day better.”

In another text, after the team had checked into a hotel in Atlantic City for a competition in March 2017, Bell asked Asatrian for his room number and who his roommate was.

Asatrian said he recalls thinking the request — sent just before 8 p.m. — seemed “strange.” But as with other inquiries from Bell that he said he found uncomfortable, Asatrian said he did not complain.

“I didn’t want anything to jeopardize my future,” Asatrian now says, adding that he felt Bell might not recommend him to college recruiters if he told the coach to stop texting.

Facing the fallout

Asatrian, who said he has undergone intense psychological therapy since his dismissal from the team, disclosed that he had been the target of at least one death threat on social media after filing his lawsuit.

He says he grew deeply fearful of being assaulted when his name was circulated by Bergen Catholic students and others on social media after he filed his lawsuit. For weeks he refused to leave his family’s home. And when he eventually stepped outside, he said, he often donned a hooded sweatshirt to hide his face.

Asatrian said that Bell did not touch him sexually — for example, trying to fondle him or attempting to kiss him. Nor did the coach ever specifically invite him on a date or make sexual comments about his physique.

But Asatrian said he grew increasingly uncomfortable when his coach would hug him, rub his hands through his hair or invite him into a classroom to demonstrate a wrestling move that required the two to embrace each other. Asatrian also said that he became suspicious of why Bell, who is 59, married and a father of a young child, sometimes asked to wrestle with him.

“Did I give him a signal?” said Asatrian, who says he is heterosexual. “Did I hint at him in some way where I didn’t mean to? Obviously that has crossed my mind.”

Nevertheless, in the interviews, Asatrian downplayed an especially explosive element of his lawsuit — that Bell stared at him while he undressed in the team’s locker room. Asatrian said that Bell, while scanning the locker room, looked at him as well as other wrestlers as they removed their clothes.

But Asatrian firmly also stood by another controversial accusation — that a Bergen Catholic assistant coach, Dominick “Donnie” Spataro, showed him and another wrestler pornographic photos on his cell phone.

Asatrian’s lawyers, who sat in on some of his interviews with the Network, further explained that no other Bergen Catholic wrestlers have yet come forward alleging abuse. In the lawsuit, Asatrian’s lawyers left open the possibility of including up to 100 other “unnamed victims.”

Lawyers said they expect to find additional specifics during the discovery phase of the case — if it proceeds beyond Friday’s hearing.

A failed wrestler?

Meanwhile, Asatrian has been depicted by Bell’s attorney, in social media posts by Bergen Catholic athletes and in wider conversations within the tight-knit North Jersey high school sports community, as little more than a failed wrestler who is now using the courts and the media to take out his frustrations on a much-beloved coach and his former school.

“Unfortunately, in hyper-competitive environments inevitably people fall short,” said Bell’s lawyer, Sean Pena, a Bergen Catholic graduate, in a statement on April 9. “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.”

But Asatrian was hardly a failure as a wrestler.

As a freshman and sophomore on the talented Bergen Catholic squad, Asatrian compiled a solid record, winning district championships both years and was even given an award for team spirit after being asked to take on the difficult task of wrestling heavier opponents.

His relationship with Bell seemed to sour midway through his most recent season — his junior year — when he asked to wrestle opponents closer to his 160-pound weight class. Asatrian said he made the request in an effort to compile a better record and attract attention from college scouts.

The problems intensified last December, Asatrian says, when he defeated a top Bergen Catholic teammate and reigning state champion in an intra-squad “wrestle off” to determine who would make the first-string squad for several upcoming tournaments. After that, Asatrian says, he felt his support from Coach Bell quickly evaporated.

Asatrian’s father, Harry, 49, who escaped Soviet-controlled Armenia in 1977 and is now a Paramus-based attorney who specializes in helping immigrants gain citizenship, has also been portrayed by supporters of Bell and Bergen Catholic as a pushy sports father, intent on persuading a coach to feature his son more at the expense of other athletes.

Harry Asatrian admits to being outspoken — but said it was not because he was trying to lobby Bell to upgrade his son’s standing on the team. Harry said in a series of separate interviews that he spoke up after he became worried that his son seemed to be unraveling emotionally amid the intense pressure to compete.

“This was supposed to be his breakout year. He should be on top of the world,” Harry said. “But what I was seeing is his confidence going down. I was concerned about his mental health.”

Anthony’s mother, Deanna, 41, who also emigrated from Armenia, said she became so worried for her son’s well-being that she routinely rose from bed every hour at night to check on whether he was sleeping soundly.

“Tony is the kind of kid who doesn’t like to show that he’s upset,” Deanna said. “He puts on a happy face and then he’ll go and close the door and he’ll be in his own head. This year we could see him sinking.”

What Harry and Deanna Asatrian did not know as they worried for their son last winter was that Coach Bell had been texting Anthony for nearly two years at that point. Anthony kept the texts a secret. He said he was too embarrassed to tell his parents or anyone else about them.

In desperation, Harry said, he began to regularly email a variety of Bergen Catholic officials, including the school’s then-president, Brother Brian Walsh, a member of the Roman Catholic Christian Brothers religious order.

On Jan. 30, however, Walsh, who has since left Bergen Catholic for another job with the Christian Brothers, responded “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” in an email to Harry and dismissed Anthony from the wrestling team.

Within days of leaving the team, Anthony showed his parents the string of 94 text messages from his coach.

Six weeks later, with his parents’ support, Anthony filed his civil lawsuit, listing Walsh, Bergen Catholic’s Principal Timothy McElhinney and the school’s athletic director, Jack McGovern, among the defendants along with Bell and Spataro, the assistant coach.

In May, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, in a separate investigation, announced that it did not find enough evidence to pursue a criminal case against Bell or others at Bergen Catholic. In July, the state Department of Children and Families notified Bergen Catholic that Asatrian’s accusations of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation were also “unfounded.”

The Prosecutor’s Office and the state child welfare agency declined to comment on their findings.

In June, Bergen Catholic honored Bell, who also teaches history at the school, as its “educator of the year.”

Bell, through his attorney, declined requests to be interviewed. Lawyers for Bergen Catholic’s officials and Spataro did not respond when asked to comment. The school’s new president, Brian Mahoney, who took over in July, also declined to comment.

While the text messages are not scheduled to be part of this Friday’s court hearing, they are likely to loom as a powerful backdrop to future legal arguments, not just in Asatrian’s case but perhaps in the nation’s larger debate over sexual abuse in the workplace.

“The texts are a centerpiece of the case,” said one of Asatrian’s lawyers, Diana Warshow.

Warshow, who is teamed up with Andrew Miltenberg, a nationally known sex abuse attorney in Manhattan, and Hackensack attorney David Eisbrouch, argues that the texting between Bell and Asatrian could become a new standard for what constitutes sexual abuse.

“How would people feel if this was a female student and this was a male coach on a volleyball team, texting ‘I love you’?” Warshow said. “As soon as you take Tony and replace him with a female student, I don’t think anyone would be splitting hairs over whether this is harassment. This can happen to male students, too.”

A wider context

Certainly, the lawsuit comes at a difficult time for Bergen Catholic. The school, which charges an annual tuition of more than $17,000 and has long cherished its reputation as one of North Jersey’s top parochial high schools, was recently swept up in the continuing clergy sex abuse scandal of the Roman Catholic church.

In 2015, the school agreed to a $1.9 million settlement with 21 former students who had allegedly been abused by Christian Brothers who taught at the school in the 1960s and 1970s. Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney whose groundbreaking work with clergy sex abuse victims was featured in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” said in an interview that he is still negotiating with Bergen Catholic for settlements in other abuse cases dating back decades.

Asatrian’s case represents a new legal challenge for the school and whether it has enough safeguards to monitor coaches’ communications in an age of texting, emails and social media.

A variety of coaching groups, including one at Rutgers University, routinely hold seminars in which they instruct coaches to avoid sending emails or texts to individual athletes without copying parents or other team members. It’s not clear if Bergen Catholic had any rules about coaches communicating with athletes when Bell sent his texts to Asatrian.

Stan Woods, who directs the joint wrestling program at Emerson and Park Ridge high schools and is regarded as one of Bergen County’s most respected coaches, said that while he greatly admires Bell’s coaching style, he added that Bell should have never sent such a large number of personal texts to Asatrian.

“If anything, he’s guilty maybe of poor judgment,” Woods said in an interview. “I don’t communicate with kids personally. That can become a problem if you do. It can be misconstrued. So you really got to be careful.”

“A coach should not be contacting a kid one-on-one without parental permission,” added John Engh, executive director of the National Alliance of Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, Florida, which conducts clinics for coaches across the nation. “If you’re going to contact a kid on Facebook or through texting, the first thing you do is contact the parent.”

After being told of the contents of several of Bell’s texts, Elizabeth Jeglic, a psychology professor at John Jay College in Manhattan and the co-author of the book, “Protecting Your Child Against Sex Abuse,” called them “highly inappropriate.”

“As an educational professional, especially at the high school level, you shouldn’t be texting children,” Jeglic said. “If I saw these texts as a parent to my children, I would be very concerned.”

Another expert on sexual abuse, Daniel Pollack, a Passaic attorney and social worker who was recently appointed to a commission to study sex abuse by a doctor at Michigan State University’s athletic program, conceded that some of Bell’s texts could be viewed as an innocent attempt to boost up Asatrian. But Pollack said other texts by Bell seemed improper.

“Saying I love you?” Pollack asked. “Oh, my God. I can’t imagine saying that.”

Anthony Asatrian couldn’t imagine it, either.

Asatrian remembers being stunned when Bell texted that he loved him for the first time on that Monday in July 2016 as he ate Cheerios.

Bell had been privately texting Asatrian for about six months at that point, often just to touch base or to check on Asatrian’s health and conditioning. To be sure, many of Bell’s texts in those early months appear to be little more than an attempt to wish Asatrian “good luck” or to check on a possible injury.

For instance, on a Sunday in February 2016, Bell asked how Asatrian “was doing this morning.” Asatrian replied that he had taken a private wrestling lesson.

Two days later, Bell again texted Asatrian — this time, to ask about his appointment with a chiropractor. Four days after that, Bell texted to say how proud he was of Asatrian’s performance in the just-finished wrestling season.

“You are only just beginning — great things in your future,” Bell wrote.

“It was one of those things where I looked at my phone and I made a face,” Asatrian said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Months later, after Bell wrote to Asatrian that he “missed you terribly today,” Asatrian was again stymied on how to reply. A few weeks earlier, Asatrian said, Bell told him he loved him while giving him a lift home after wrestling practice.

“Reading it over and over gives me the chills,” Asatrian said of the text messages.

At the time he received them, Asatrian said, he considered confronting Bell and asking him to stop sending such personal texts. But Asatrian decided not to, fearing he might jeopardize his spot on the team.

“I have many goals in mind. I work very hard for them,” Asatrian said. “I feel if I were to say anything it would just jeopardize that.”

After leaving Bergen Catholic in late January, Asatrian refused to attend any school for nearly three weeks. He says he was too distraught.

After he was finally enrolled at Paramus High School, he met wrestling coach Chris Falato. While Falato declined to discuss Asatrian’s lawsuit, he said he is quite sure about Asatrian’s ability.

“He’s an extremely talented wrestler,” Falato said of Asatrian. “He very easily could be a state champion.”

Another coach, Alex Karnitski, a former two-time world university champion from Belarus who teaches at the Apex Wrestling Academy in Mahwah, also said Asatrian could win a state title.

“He’s so good, but they just broke him at the school,” Karnitski said of Asatrian’s time at Bergen Catholic. “They squeezed him like a lemon for the first two years, and then in the third year they kicked him out.”

These days, Anthony Asatrian is working out regularly — and feverishly.

“I’m not just a guy who got kicked off the team,” Asatrian said on a recent afternoon as he sat on a wrestling mat at Paramus High School. “I’m that guy who’s going to prove everybody wrong.”

One of his goals, he says, is to wrestle against his former Bergen Catholic teammates.

“Every day, I wait for it,” he said. “Every day, I work hard for it.”

For more, visit NorthJersey.com

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