3 families now suing Warner Christian Academy over child-molesting teacher
By Frank Fernandez
January 12, 2015
A mother learned her son was being sexually molested and exploited by the former summer camp director at Warner Christian Academy when FBI agents visited her home with pictures of the abuse, according to a lawsuit filed in circuit court in Volusia County.
The lawsuit is the most recent of three filed so far by parents of boys against White Chapel Church of God, which runs Warner Christian Academy in South Daytona, following former teacher and summer camp director Matthew Graziotti’s guilty pleas to federal child- porn charges.
The sexual exploitation and molestation of the boy began in the summer of 2012 and continued through the summer of 2014, according to the lawsuit filed by attorney Kevin Bledsoe. Warner Christian failed to adequately check Graziotti’s background and failed “to investigate unusual and suspicious activities of Matthew Graziotti which were red flags that he was grooming children for potential sexual abuse,” according to the lawsuit. The suit does not detail the red flags and identifies the boy and his mother only by the pseudonyms of Richard Roe and Robin Roe.
The school had no indication there was a problem, Mark Tress, the superintendent of Warner Christian Academy, said in a phone interview. Tress said no parent ever complained of any inappropriate behavior on the part of Graziotti.
“As I said from the beginning, I had no red flags nor were there people that came forward and questioned things or said that there was something unusual that was going on,” Tress said.
Graziotti, 43, pleaded guilty to child-porn charges in a nine-count federal indictment in which seven of the counts listed individual victims ranging in age from 6 to 11 years old. Graziotti will face up to 250 years in federal prison when he is sentenced Jan. 26 on the charges.
The FBI found in Graziotti’s computer a folder titled “personally known” with 41 subfolders with boys’ names. The computer contained images of Graziotti performing sex acts on Richard Roe, according to the lawsuit.
Two other lawsuits have also been filed. The lawsuits accuse White Chapel Church of God of negligent hiring, retention and supervision of Graziotti, who was hired by the school in 2005.
The two other lawsuits filed against White Chapel and Warner Christian Academy involve a bus trip and field trip on July 11 organized by the school. One of those suits was filed Dec. 9 by the firm of Politis & Matovina and states that Graziotti “sexually and violently assaulted” a minor identified only as John Doe who lives in Port Orange.
Graziotti “undressed and inappropriately touched the Plaintiff, John Doe, without his consent,” while on the bus and/or during the field trip, according to the lawsuit filed by Mark Matovina.
Attorney Jason Harr filed the other lawsuit on Dec. 1, which was the first against the school in the Graziotti case and also involves the July 11 field trip. In this case, Graziotti misled the child identified only as John Doe, “to believe (he) was engaging in ‘horse play’ while engaging in sexual acts without his consent,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuits accuse the school of negligently hiring Graziotti. The school hired Graziotti without first performing a reasonable background check, Bledsoe’s lawsuit states, after it knew or had reason to know of Graziotti’s propensity to act in a violent or inappropriate manner.
The Edgewater Police Department investigated a complaint in 2004 of sex offenses at 2108 Hibiscus Drive, which is the address of Friendship Community Church, then called Friendship Baptist Church, where Graziotti once served as a youth pastor. Former Edgewater Detective Dan Blazi, now a city councilman, said in an interview last year that the alleged offenses didn’t happen at the church. He said the investigation began after someone saw Graziotti lying down on a couch with a child during a sleepover at his house. Blazi said that while his instinct told him something had happened, there was not enough evidence to proceed with a case against Graziotti.
Bledsoe’s lawsuit also states that Warner Christian breached its duty by “failing to appreciate” that Graziotti was holding unauthorized sleepovers with children in the Warner Christian Academy summer day camp program at school and at his home in Edgewater.
After Graziotti’s arrest last summer the school learned he held an unauthorized sleepover at the school. Police have said Graziotti sexually molested one or more children during the sleepover. Afterward the school tightened its procedures to prevent a recurrence.
Other potential lawsuits remain, like one from attorney Brian Toung, who represents another child.
“I have an undisclosed client who is depicted on photographs being molested while unconscious and we suspect he was drugged,” Toung said in a phone interview.
Toung said he has been told by a witness that the photos of the child were taken on school property.
Attorney Cecil Davis Jr., who represents Warner Christian Academy, wrote in a motion to dismiss Harr’s lawsuit that the school is not liable for the alleged negligent hiring of Graziotti because the school “did not know and should not have known of the alleged unfitness of this employee before he was hired” and also states that the school conducted an adequate pre-employment investigation into Graziotti’s background.
Tress said the school is looking forward to moving on.
“I will always have the children’s best interest at heart — always,” Tress said. “So we will continue to go though the process as need be. But we are confident that it will come out at the end that we knew nothing and there was nothing there that came to us that showed us that we should have seen something coming.”