Three former Arlington Catholic High School students are suing Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston and other church leaders for failing to protect them from alleged sexual abuse by a former vice principal, in what appears to be part of a new legal strategy to hold hierarchy more accountable for failing to heed lessons from the sex abuse crisis that rocked the church two decades ago.
The suit, which was filed May 5 in Suffolk Superior Court, alleges the former administrator, Stephen Biagioni, abused the three plaintiffs when they were teenagers from about 2011 to 2016.
Each former student alleged the abuse occurred during detention, when Biagioni engaged “in explicit sexual behavior and lewd and lascivious conduct,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit is the second in a year to target church leaders, and believed to be the first to name O’Malley, for allegedly failing to put in adequate safeguards and learn from the lessons of the sex abuse crisis.
Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney representing the former students, and who helped bring the crisis to light, told reporters Monday the allegations of sexual abuse by Biagioni were “an open secret” at the school, but church and school leaders failed to take action.
“The Archdiocese of Boston has a dual role here as a moral leader and also as a responsibility to supervise [children] to make sure they’re kept safe,” Garabedian said. “And that just did not happen.”
Terry Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said in an e-mail that “certain of the allegations” in the lawsuit were brought to the attention of the high school in 2016.
Those allegations were also reported to law enforcement and child welfare authorities at the time “as part of Arlington Catholic’s ongoing commitment to provide a safe environment for young people at the school,” he said.
“The administrator in question was subsequently removed from his position, and personnel from Arlington Catholic and the Archdiocese of Boston cooperated fully with the investigating authorities,” Donilon said.
The district attorney’s office and the state Department of Children and Families did not respond to requests for comment. Biagioni did not immediately respond to a message left on a phone listed for a family member.
Two other plaintiffs also filed lawsuits against church officials last year alleging they were sexually abused by Biagioni at Arlington Catholic. Biagioni has not been named a defendant in the cases for “strategic reasons,” said Garabedian, who declined to comment further.
Garabedian alleges church leaders should have done more to prevent abuses because of their awareness of the history of abuse in Boston, and because of O’Malley’s greater role in the church — he was named the leader of its Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors by Pope Francis in 2014.
“There is no doubt that the antennas of the Archdiocese of Boston that should have been raised very high because of their history, allowing sexual abuse to occur for decades upon decades . . . one would think by now they would have the proper safeguards in place to protect children,” Garabedian said.
Legal experts told The Boston Globe the argument could have some merit.
Emma M. Hetherington, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, said the “foreseeability of harm and duty to protect is heightened” because schools are charged with the care of children.
The Archdiocese of Boston should be taking steps not only to prevent future abuse, but also to identify present and past abuse, she said in an e-mail.
“Given the extensive and well-known history of child sexual abuse within Catholic institutions, particularly within the Archdiocese of Boston, there is no doubt that the archdiocese is on legal notice of past abuse, and can therefore reasonably foresee present and future abuse occurring within their institutions,” Hetherington said.
Christine P. Bartholomew, a professor of law at the State University of New York Buffalo School of Law, said O’Malley owes a legal duty to protect the “most vulnerable” in the church to protect them from sexual misconduct.
That includes a duty to supervise anyone under his authority who works at an Archdiocesan school, she said in an e-mail.
According to the lawsuit, the three plaintiffs — who were not named in court papers — alleged similar abuse by Biagioni. During detention at the school, Biagioni would wrestle students, and while doing so, he would force their heads up against his crotch area, the complaint said.
All three said they have been suffering from consequences of the abuse, including anger, flashbacks, and sleep problems, the complaint said.
In February 2016, WCVB-TV reported that Biagioni, then serving as the school’s principal, was placed on leave while Arlington Catholic officials investigated a complaint against him.
At the time, then-vice principal Linda Butt said officials had “no reason to believe at this time it involves allegations of sexual abuse,” the news station reported.
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.