The high school football coach who blew the whistle on a sexually charged hazing scandal in his program told a Sacramento Superior Court jury Thursday “I was absolutely blown away” two years ago when he was fired after he brought the matter to his bosses’ attention.
Testifying in the trial to decide the wrongful-termination lawsuit he filed against the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, Christopher Cerbone confirmed he reacted with anger and outrage when the school principal and an assistant school superintendent informed him he was being removed from his job at St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo.
“‘This is absolute nonsense,’ ” Cerbone testified that he told the principal, Mary Ellen Ryan. “ ‘I’m the one trying to protect kids. I come to you about something that’s happening and you fire me?’ It didn’t make any sense.”
Cerbone, 52, wants compensatory and punitive damages on claims of unlawful retaliation, wrongful termination and defamation for his Jan. 25, 2013, firing from a job as head coach and physical education teacher at the small Catholic high school.
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The coach’s suit said he found out about the hazing two days before school recessed for Christmas in 2012. He said he overheard some freshman players criticizing one of his assistants who was in charge of the junior varsity. He said the younger players told him the assistant didn’t do anything when they complained that some of the members of the varsity team would “punk” them on days their two squads gathered on the same practice field. The episodes included hazing involving genitalia.
Cerbone testified that he reported the behavior to Child Protective Services but that agency officials told him to take it to his supervisor at the school. He said he told the principal two days later but that Ryan appeared “completely expressionless.” He said he wanted to contact Vallejo police. A former New York state police officer, Cerbone testified he offered to assist in the investigation, which he said drew him an angry rebuke from Ryan.
“She slammed her hand on the table, pointed her finger at me and told me, ‘You will stay out of this,’ ” Cerbone testified.
Ryan testified Wednesday she ordered an investigation when school resumed in early 2013. When it was finished, she expelled five players and announced Cerbone’s firing.
A trial brief filed by Stephen J. Greene Jr. and R.G. Shannon, two of the attorneys for the diocese, said Cerbone “should be the one held accountable,” that he “was personally responsible for both the administration of the program and the well-being of the boys entrusted in his care.”
“The protection of children and young people is a priority for the Diocese at all of its schools, and it makes no apology for putting the interests of the safety of the students of SPSV above potentially bruised egos or hurt feelings,” the lawyers wrote. “Plaintiff was indeed responsible for the players involved in the hazing, and was dismissed as a result.”
School officials eventually called Vallejo police to investigate. No criminal charges were filed.
One crucial issue in the case appears to be who was responsible for supervising the players during the 40-minute juncture when the hazing reportedly took place – after school let out at 2:50 p.m. and before football practice began at 3:30 p.m. Cerbone testified he remained in the locker room to help the player with equipment problems and otherwise get them ready for practice. Diocesan officials say he was still responsible whatever happened on the practice field.
Cerbone had been hired five months before his firing. He testified he grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., and played one year of college football at the University of Wyoming before suffering a career-ending injury to his neck. He said he went into police work for five years before he shifted to the education field. He taught and coached in the New York City area before moving to California. The St. Patrick-St. Vincent job was his first head-coaching opportunity.
Both he and Ryan described an emotionally charged moment the day he was fired.
“I hand him this (termination) letter, and I told him I knew this would be difficult for him,” the principal testified under questioning from defense attorney Tom Johnson of Sacramento. “He read the letter and began speaking very loud. He started yelling at me and Miss (Julie) Carver (the assistant diocesan school superintendent). He used the ‘f’ word multiple times. He got up pretty fast, and I said, ‘Please sit down,’ and he said, ‘You’ll be hearing from me. I’m going to the press.’ ”
Cerbone confirmed “I may have dropped an F-bomb.”
He said when he threatened to go to the local newspaper with the story, Ryan told him, “You would do that to the children?”
“I found that ironic,” he said.
The story made it into the evening’s TV news in Sacramento and in the Bay Area, and Cerbone said the diocese’s contention in its press statement that he bore “ultimate responsibility” for hazing has ruined his career as a football coach.
“Everybody Googles you and it pops up everywhere that I allowed this to happen,” Cerbone testified. “Who’s going to hire me?”
He has since found a job as an assistant principal for a middle school in King City for $92,000 a year, well above the approximately $60,000 he earned annually at St. Patrick-St. Vincent, according to the defense brief.
Cerbone is scheduled to continue his testimony when the trial resumes Monday in front of Judge David W. Abbott.