Family sues Catholic school for third time

Photo by Brian Trusdell
SUED AGAIN — St. Theresa’s School in Kenilworth is the defendant in a third lawsuit brough by the parents of a girl who sued initially to get the school to put her on the boys basketball team after the girls team was disbanded.

KENILWORTH, NJ — The family of a girl who sued and won to allow her to play on the boys basketball team at a Catholic school last year is suing the school for a third time, along with the Newark Archdiocese and 97 other entities, claiming their children were bullied, harassed and intimidated and the family defamed.
The lawsuit, which does not specify damages except to ask for three times the amount the court deems “appropriate and just,” also accuses the defendants of fraud, breach of contract, negligence and intentional infliction of distress.

Scott Phillips filed the suit in July in Essex County Court on behalf of his three children, identified only by their initials, who all attended St. Theresa School in Kenilworth. The diocese had the case moved to federal court in August.

The case drew national attention and resulted in the children’s mother and Phillips’ wife, Union County Superior Court Judge Theresa Mullen, being convicted of defiant trespass. She is facing five ethics charges before the state Supreme Court because of her actions in the case. Mullen, who is appealing the conviction, is not identified in the latest suit other than as Phillips’ wife.

Many of the defendants identified by name were among 144 people who had signed an online petition at Change.org, now closed, that was titled “We Stand With STS.”

“The petition had some particular remarks about a teenage girl, a seventh-grader, that were very derogatory,” attorney Susan McCrea, who filed the suit for the Phillips family, said. “They described the girl as jealous and intolerant, that the family has a grudge against the school.”

Three defendants are identified only by online nicknames.
“It’s mostly parents, parishioners who spoke out in support of the parish when this all began, posted comments online, signed a petition,” said Christopher Westrick, the attorney who represents the diocese and several others, including Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Monsignor Thomas Nydegger and school officials. “They’re being sued for defamation for expressing their opinion.”

Attorney William Hood, who represents Patricia Rimili Blicharz, said his client merely responded in an online forum that discussed the case by saying “let the girl play.”

“I find no merit in their claim,” Hood said. “I am shocked that they would file this case against a Springfield housewife. It’s an abuse of the courts.”

McCrea said that all but about eight to 10 defendants have responded, and a conference call during the first week of October set an Oct. 16 deadline for motions to be filed.

The diocese and with several other entities have asked the federal court to dismiss the case.

“I don’t know quite how to describe it,” Westrick said with regard to the lawsuit. “It’s a continuation of the matter in Superior Court last year. It’s a sequel to that. It follows on the same issues, which was disposed of by Judge (Donald) Kessler.”

The case dates back to 2016, when St. Theresa School determined there was not enough interest to have a girls basketball team and disbanded it. The Phillips family sued to have their daughter, then 13, be allowed to play on the boys team.

A judge initially rejected the claim but then reversed it when he learned that a girl at another school within the diocese had played on a boys team, allowing the girl to play in February 2017. However, St. Theresa School then essentially expelled the girl and her younger sister, based on its policy that requires parents to sign a document acknowledging that if legal action is taken against the school, students will be asked to leave.

Mullen, however, went to the school with her daughters, claiming the expulsion had only been a “request” that the girls not return. Despite a request from police, Mullen initially refused to leave. After eventually relenting, she was escorted from the building by the police. Subsequently, St. Theresa’s Pastor Rev. Joseph Bejgrowicz filed a complaint against Mullen, and she was later convicted of defiant trespass.

The school and diocese later relented and allowed the girls to finish the school year, but did not allow them to re-enroll for the 2017-2018 school year. The Phillips family sued to force the school to re-enroll their children, and made claims regarding harassment and their older son’s failure to be named valedictorian in spring 2016. However Kessler, sitting in Essex County, rejected their arguments in August 2017, admonishing them in the process.

Kessler criticized the parents for failing to point to a law that would force the school to admit the children. He said the school’s policy states that if a student’s or parent’s presence has caused a disruption at the school, they would be expelled. He also rebuked the parents for their behavior regarding their older son. That decision has been appealed.

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