Lawsuit aims at clearing name of Syracuse accuser

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PITTSBURGH (AP) - The attorney for a Maine man who claims former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine molested him on a team trip to Pittsburgh in 2002 said he filed a lawsuit Thursday to rebut comments by Fine’s attorneys and a prosecutor that the man isn’t credible.

The lawyer, Jeffrey Anderson, said he would have preferred to sue the 65-year-old ex-coach after federal prosecutors in New York finish their investigation.

Two former ballboys have accused Fine of molesting them in the 1980s and Anderson’s 23-year-old client, Zachary Tomaselli, contends the same thing happened to him inside a Pittsburgh hotel room on Jan. 21, 2002. Tomaselli, who was 13 at the time, said Fine allegedly arranged the trip for the boy to watch Syracuse play the University of Pittsburgh.

Fine, who was fired, has denied the men’s allegations. His attorney, Karl Sleight, did not respond Thursday to e-mails and calls for comment on the lawsuit.

On Wednesday, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said the ballboys are credible but that the crimes they allege were too old to prosecute.

But he also said Tomaselli’s school records and the team’s travel records cast doubt on Tomaselli’s claims. Fine’s attorneys seized on those comments and said the records show “there is proof that Tomaselli fabricated this allegation.”

Anderson said at a news conference that he hurriedly filed the lawsuit in county court in Pittsburgh on Thursday because the comments by Fitzpatrick and Fine’s attorneys “in effect called Zach a liar.”

Tomaselli’s five-page lawsuit briefly recounts Fine’s alleged sexual molestation of the two ballboys but provides almost no details.

The lawsuit says that Fine met Tomaselli in 2001 and that, “In 2002, Fine sexually abused Zachary, when he was 13 years old.” It said Tomaselli was too young give consent, that Fine’s abuse was unwanted and that it has caused “substantial harm” to Tomaselli.

At Thursday’s news conference, Anderson said Fine met the boy at an autograph show. He said Tomaselli was molested in Fine’s room in a Pittsburgh hotel where the team stayed, as Fine allegedly showed the boy pornography and had him stay overnight. Anderson wouldn’t name the hotel, saying Tomaselli was a young, naive boy who may not have taken note of the name, even though the attorney claims to be reasonably certain of the location.

The “alleged discrepancies” between the records Fitzpatrick cited Wednesday and Tomaselli’s account may be explained by the fact that Tomaselli didn’t travel on the team’s flight, but on a bus with some college-aged boosters and helpers, Anderson said. Fine arranged for Tomaselli to ride the bus, Anderson contends, so Tomaselli would be available for Fine to indulge in his “deviant and perverted sexual impulses.”

Tomaselli appeared aside his lawyer at the news conference, but didn’t answer questions. He read from a handwritten statement that began, “I am taking this action to support the other men that have gone public and to do everything I can to protect other kids from harm by Bernie Fine and powerful men like him.”

U.S. Secret Service agents have searched Fine’s home in Fayetteville, N.Y., and Fitzpatrick has said that federal authorities are investigating because the New York statute of limitations precludes state charges in the allegations brought by the former ballboys.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Duncan, in Syracuse, said he couldn’t comment whether federal investigators had interviewed Tomaselli.

Tomaselli didn’t specify how he was allegedly abused, and Anderson wouldn’t say. But both men indicated Tomaselli _ who was raised in a strictly religious family _ didn’t realize what occurred until he told a trusted friend in 2008.

“I didn’t tell anybody about this or even see it as abuse” until then, Tomaselli said.

Anderson said Tomaselli told the friend that he “had sex” with Fine and described the acts, prompting the friend to respond “Zach, that’s not having sex. That’s sexual abuse.”

Tomaselli initially believed his behavior was sinful and his fault, Anderson said. He didn’t go public until after Fine and Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim spoke out last month against the two former ballboys, Anderson said.

The attorney said he provided few details in the lawsuit because he’s still investigating Tomaselli’s claims, including whether Syracuse officials and the school itself are liable.

Anderson has already sued on behalf of one alleged victim of former Penn State football assistant Jerry Sandusky, who faces criminal charges that he abused 10 boys prompting a major scandal that resulted in head coach Joe Paterno’s firing.

“If Syracuse failed these children as we believe Penn State did … they will be added” to Tomaselli’s lawsuit, said Anderson.

Fitzpatrick did not immediately return requests for comment on the lawsuit or the records he cited.

Tomaselli’s father, who has previously said he believes his son is lying about the Fine allegations, did not immediately return a call for comment.

Also Thursday, a victims’ advocate said New York state must lengthen the statute of limitations to bring charges of child sex abuse in light of the case.

Victims of childhood sexual abuse are “denied basic legal rights,” said the Rev. Robert Hoatson of the advocacy group Road to Recovery. “If there ever was a case that screamed `injustice,’ it is this one, since it glaringly displays the further damage that antiquated laws can inflict on victims,” Hoatson said in a statement.

Tomaselli faces criminal charges in Maine that he molested an underage boy. He has told The Associated Press that he plans to plead guilty.

He said the lawsuit and speaking out against Fine are part of his efforts to take responsibility for that behavior.

“I need to get better and am getting help,” Tomaselli said. “I know there are so many kids out there hurting and want them to know that I am now reclaiming myself and taking responsibility for the harm I have done and feel a responsibility to speak up and speak truthfully out so that others are helped and other kids are protected better.”

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