In St. Francis Prep Sexual Harassment Civil Suit, First Battle Is over Accuser's Anonymity
By Michael O'Keeffe
New York Daily News
August 7, 2013
|An empty classroom at St. Francis Prep, where a former female student brings a sexual harrassment civil suit.|
An attorney for St. Francis Prep says it is inappropriate for a former student who claims she was sexually harassed by a Spanish teacher to sue the school under a fictitious name, according to papers filed in Brooklyn federal court this week.
But “Jane Doe” says she has to pursue the civil suit she filed in June anonymously because the harassment and bullying from Brother Ben O'Reilly contributed to the mental illness that caused her to abuse alcohol and attempt suicide.
If U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson rules she can’t remain anonymous, Doe said, future employers and school admissions officers would learn the most intimate details of her life simply by searching Google for her name.
“It is extremely important for me to remain anonymous because the case contains a lot of details about my medical history,” Doe said. “I was sexually abused as a child, I’ve battled with substance abuse, I’ve had suicide attempts. I'm in my early 20s. If I were to go public, this would follow me for the rest of my life.”
The suit filed in June on behalf of Doe and another former student, as well as an ex-St. Francis Prep teacher, claims the Queens school ignored sexual and physical abuse by longtime assistant football coach Robert Stenger. St. Francis Prep, the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn — the order that operates the school — and longtime principal Brother Leonard Conway are listed as defendants in the suit.
Attorney Philip Semprevivo noted in an Aug. 6 letter to Judge Johnson that most courts have ruled against “the use of fictitious names on the grounds that it interferes with the public’s right of access to the courts.”
Semprevivo told the Daily News that while it is appropriate for some plaintiffs to file suit anonymously, he didn’t believe it was appropriate in this case. He said he would explain his reasoning in a future filing.
Semprevivo’s letter asked the judge for permission to file a motion to dismiss the case, primarily because the statute of limitations had expired on most of the claims.
Doe’s attorney, Kevin Mulhearn, said Semprevivo is attempting to pressure Doe to abandon the lawsuit. “They know who she is,” Mulhearn said. “They can prepare a defense. This is simply retaliation.”
The suit claims St. Francis Prep officials had received numerous complaints that Stenger, who also taught social studies, had sexually and physically abused boys by 1985 but was permitted to continue to work closely with students. Plaintiff Mark Evangelista claims Stenger hit him in the face “with great force” without provocation before a history class in 1985.
The third plaintiff, former teacher Elizabeth Cucinotta Sorvillo, chronicled complaints about St. Francis Prep teachers, students and others on her website, “Burn and Rot in Hell,” a website designed to give users a place to vent about their spouses, friends, politics, sports and other topics. The suit said Sorvillo received permission — as well as support and assistance from school officials — before she launched the site in 2011.
But when administrators learned that people were using the site to complain about inappropriate behavior by faculty members, they ordered Sorvillo to shut it down. When she refused, she was terminated.