Two families have sued St. Anthony’s Catholic School in northwest Fresno, accusing school officials of neglecting to protect two pre-teen boys from a schoolyard bully.
In response, the Office of Catholic Education, which serves the Diocese of Fresno, has informed the parents of the two alleged victims that their children no longer can attend St. Anthony’s at Maroa and Bullard avenues or any other Catholic school in the diocese.
“In light of recent events, including your pending lawsuit against St. Anthony of Padua School and the Diocese of Fresno, it is in the best interest of the school and the diocese that your children not return as students next year to St. Anthony’s or any other school in the Diocese,” said a letter from Mona E. Faulkner, the diocese’s schools superintendent.
“Unbelievable,” replied Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian, who represents the two families.
“This sends a terrible message to the community, that if you disagree with the Catholic Church, you will get punished for asserting your constitutional rights,” Paboojian said.
Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian about the diocese response to his lawsuit
Though the letter is signed by Faulkner, Paboojian said his clients blame Msgr. Robert D. Wenzinger, the pastor at St. Anthony’s. “The monsignor is behind this,” Paboojian said.
Efforts to speak with Wenzinger were not successful Friday. But Faulkner came to the monsignor’s defense, saying that the diocese’s legal counsel – not Wenzinger – was behind the letter that Faulkner said was written to protect not only the children involved in the lawsuit, but all students at St. Anthony’s.
“In contentious situations like this, tempers can flare, and children will hear it,” Faulkner said. “Our children don’t need to hear it because it’s unhealthy for them.”
Paboojian represents the family of an 8-year-old boy and the family of a 7-year-old boy. Because the two boys are alleged victims of sexual misconduct, Paboojian did not name them or their parents in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed in Fresno County Superior Court, accuses school officials of negligence, negligent hiring of staff, and negligent training and supervision. The two families are seeking unspecified damages for emotional distress, embarrassment and humiliation.
The lawsuit says an 8-year-old male student at St. Anthony’s bullied and engaged in sexual misconduct with the two boys while on campus during school hours. The lawsuit says the bullying began last November, and when school officials found out about it, they failed to report it immediately to police.
Instead, school officials did a internal investigation before calling police a few days after the allegations surfaced, Paboojian said.
“They violated mandatory reporting laws,” Paboojian said. “School officials have a duty to report it to police immediately.”
Because the case involves minors, Paboojian said he could not discuss the allegations in detail. But he said police investigated, found nothing criminal happened, and the 8-year-old alleged bully, as well as the two alleged victims, were allowed to finish the school year at St. Anthony’s.
We followed the letter of the law.
Mona E. Faulkner, the diocese’s schools superintendent
In the letter, Faukner says the diocese handbook clearly states: “The Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Fresno reserve the right to admit, readmit or deny admission to any student.”
“We are denying admission for the school year commencing fall 2016, and all years going forward,” the letter says.
The letter is dated May 23, the same day lawyers for the diocese filed an answer to Paboojian’s civil complaint, denying the allegations.
Paboojian said the two families tried to work with school officials. When it became clear school officials were not listening to their concerns, they sued, he said.
Faulkner gives a different account, saying school officials adhered to the mandatory reporting laws by calling Child Protective Services once the allegations surfaced. “We followed the letter of the law,” she said.
Faulkner said CPS told school officials not to call police immediately since the allegations involved young children. Once police were called, the allegations were investigated and the allegations were determined to be unfounded, Faulkner said. She also said police cleared school officials of wrongdoing. “Police said they found no evidence of poor supervision or oversight of the children,” Faulkner said.
St. Anthony’s is a good school and safe for children, Faulkner said. And the best evidence to support her belief, she said, was that the families of the two alleged victims filled out paperwork so their children could continue at St. Anthony’s. “If we are so bad, so negligent, why would you want your children to go there?” she said.