While the Rev. Alberto Battagliola was assigned to the mission at San Luis Obispo, his ability to focus on troubled souls attracted a 14-year-old altar boy. Battagliola took him under his wing, listened to him, and bought him clothes and dinner.
And one night in October 1974, he took the boy for a drive, gave him wine and allegedly had sex with him.
The boy, now a man of 44, said he went on to develop a drug habit and sexual and emotional problems that continue today.
From San Luis Obispo, Battagliola went on to Our Lady of Refuge Church in Castroville, where he was serving when he met his fate in 1977 a slit throat in a San Francisco motel room.
This month the former altar boy essentially turned the calendar back more than a quarter century, suing the Diocese of Monterey for an unspecified sum. Joining the chorus of complaints against the Roman Catholic Church nationwide, he and his family allege that church officials failed to stop Battagliola and later did not take the altar boy’s claims seriously or tell the family what they knew about the priest.
Diocesan spokesman Kevin Drabinski would not comment about the lawsuit but said church officials were conducting “an exhaustive search” of their files for more information on Battagliola and for any signs of previous complaints.
The diocese, Drabinski said, “is committed to a compassionate response to those who have experienced sexual abuse, and to their families.”
The former altar boy did not reveal his identity in the lawsuit and agreed to an interview on condition that his name not be published. In the telephone interview, he said it was time to tell his story.
He said Battagliola came into his life while he was in the ninth grade the 1973-74 school year. The boy’s mother recalls meeting the recently arrived Argentine priest, who was about 55 at the time. It was fiesta time at the San Luis Obispo Mission, but the cleric was sitting by himself on the church steps.
“He was a brand-new priest, sitting all alone,” she said. She offered him a soda.
“No,” he said, not paying her much attention.
She was a little taken aback: “He was not very articulate.”
But Battagliola later became cordial with some of her family friends. Slowly, through cocktails and chats, he became friends with her family as well. He would stop by after dinner, sometimes unannounced, for drinks as other priests often did.
He took an interest in the high school freshman, an altar boy who was considering the priesthood. The boy had problems talking to his father, a retired Marine who was always tied up with his business.
Battagliola became a father figure, the plaintiff recalled.
“He listened to me, and I could talk to him. We talked about school, my direction in life, where we’re going.”
The priest was also “buying my attention” with pizza, clothes and outings, he contended.
When the boy became a sophomore and received his driving permit, he recalled, Battagliola took him out driving one evening in his green and white Ford Torino. The priest drove him to the top of a hill overlooking San Luis Obispo’s Cuesta Park, where he talked and allegedly gave the boy wine.
The boy became drunk. He said the priest took advantage of him.
“I was pretty much in a dumbfounded state,” he said. “That was my first sexual experience.”
The priest took him home. The boy kept quiet.
Later, the boy developed gonorrhea. He told his coach about the infection because it was affecting his athletic performance. He said two teammates overheard the conversation and spread the word. He became known on campus as “the VD kid.”
“It tore me down,” he said. “Even my friends wouldn’t speak to me.”
A year or two later, Battagliola left to serve at the 600-member church in Castroville. The boy’s family visited Battagliola and a number of other priests there, and the boy acted as if nothing had happened. Distance slowly diminished their contact, though he said he occasionally asked Battagliola for financial help.
Over the years, the sexual experience continued to haunt him and complicate an already troubled life. He said he barely finished school and has suffered from drug and sexual problems. He said he has gone through more than two dozen jobs and is now unemployed because of a work-related injury.
He said he was shocked when his mother received a call in February 1977 from a San Francisco police detective.
Battagliola had been slain.
The priest, 59, had been found in a pool of blood in a room at the Mart Motel in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. His throat had been slashed, and blood was spattered on the walls. He was wearing a T-shirt, slacks and shoes.
An autopsy later showed Battagliola had been stabbed repeatedly in the head, neck and chest.
San Francisco police determined that the priest had checked into the room with a long-haired man in his 20s but was discovered in the room, dead and alone, the next morning. Neither bed had been slept in. Homicide inspectors found the priest’s wallet, but the money and credit cards were missing along with Battagliola’s car, the green and white Torino. A half-empty bottle of bourbon was found in the room.
The case has never been solved, but one of the investigators, former San Francisco homicide inspector Ed Erdelatz, said the case is “solvable.”
“The killer left his fingerprint in blood in the room,” said Erdelatz, now an investigator for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
“You just don’t find that very often,” Erdelatz said. “It was an unusual case.”
Police never found the knife or the killer. They did find the priest’s car a few days later at a roadside rest stop outside Roseburg, Ore.
The priest had been visiting San Francisco about once a month, Castroville Fire Chief Joseph Escobar told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. Erdelatz said detectives believed Battagliola visited San Francisco for sex, but they were never able to find any of his partners, nor did they ever hear any molestation complaints against him.
Bishop Harry Clinch, who headed the Diocese of Monterey at the time, told the newspaper that he had no idea why Battagliola had made the trip.
Church officials and community members called Battagliola a “lively, vivacious, humorous man” who was highly involved in the community. He helped the fire district raise money for a new truck, and he was the spiritual adviser to Castroville’s Boy Scout troop.
Several times since the killing, police have run the bloody print through modern print-identification equipment, but no match has been found.
“It’s a great lead,” the former detective said. “It’s just that we’ve never been able to do anything with it.”
The plaintiff in the lawsuit said he waited until the late 1990s to tell his mother about that night in Battagliola’s car.
The mother said she informed Bishop Sylvester Ryan of the Monterey diocese. She said he listened sympathetically to her story and suggested counseling for her son.
The former altar boy says he wanted to find out what church officials knew about Battagliola, but the diocese would never give an answer. He and his mother said church officials have given them the runaround, failing to show up for scheduled meetings and failing to return phone calls.
The mother said she has since talked to other Mission San Luis Obispo families, but they have not had any complaints about Battagliola.
The former altar boy says friends ask him why he is pursuing the lawsuit. He said they tell him: “He’s dead can’t you forget it?”
His response: “I’ve been trying to deal with it. But I have a lot of anger, a lot of issues.”