SACRAMENTO (CN) - A Catholic high school fired its head coach for reporting the sexual hazing of football players, and shirked its duty to report the abuse to police, the fired coach claims in court.
Christopher Cerbone sued the Diocese of Sacramento, St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School, its president Mary Ellen Ryan, and the Catholic Foundation of the Diocese of Sacramento, in Superior Court.
Cerbone started working at St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in August 2012 as a P.E. teacher and head coach of the varsity football team, he says in the complaint.
Cerbone claims he found out about the sexual hazing on Dec. 19, after giving his freshman P.E. class a final exam.
"Mr. Cerbone overheard some of the students talking about the junior varsity football coach Sean Morris ('Coach Morris')," the complaint states. "Specifically, the boys were expressing concern about Coach Morris because he let the varsity football players 'punk' them. Mr. Cerbone then asked what they meant, and the boys reluctantly informed him that on certain days when the coaches were not around the varsity players would hold down certain freshmen while other varsity players would either stick their naked buttocks in the face of the freshmen or slap their penises on the freshmen's faces. Mr. Cerbone was extremely upset and concerned and asked for the names of the varsity players responsible so that immediate action could be taken. Mr. Cerbone further questioned the boys as to why they had not informed anyone about the incidents. The boys responded that they had specifically informed Coach Morris about the abuse, who responded that it was not his problem, and that is why they disliked him."
Morris is not a party to the complaint.
It continues: "Shocked by the allegations, Mr. Cerbone immediately went to the office and contacted Child Protective Services ('CPS'). Mr. Cerbone told CPS that that he was reporting what he believed to be sexual misconduct, harassment and battery. Mr. Cerbone then described the graphic details of the incidents as described by the students. Mr. Cerbone was then informed by CPS that he needed to speak with his supervisor and that this was not an issue for CPS because it was not an issue involving an adult and a child," the complaint states.
Cerbone says he went to the campus chaplain, nonparty Jeff Henry, and told him about the sexual hazing. Cerbone claims that Henry hesitated to get involved at first, but agreed to help him write a letter to defendant principal Ryan, and accompany Cerbone when he gave it to her.
During the meeting with Ryan, Cerbone says, he gave her the letter, told her about his phone call to CPS, and urged her to call the police because he believed this was a "criminal matter."
But Ryan "responded that she did not believe contacting the police department was necessary and that she would conduct her own investigation," the complaint states. "She further stated that she would see Coach Morris at the basketball game that night and would speak with him them. Mr. Cerbone thought it was odd that she would discuss the allegations with Coach Morris without first interviewing the victims. Mr. Cerbone, due to his training as a New York City police officer, offered his assistance in the investigation. Principal Ryan quickly rejected his assistance and told Mr. Cerbone not to talk to anyone about the incident."
About a month after talking to the freshmen football players, Cerbone says, he returned from winter break and "learned that he and four (4) other coaches would be placed on administrative leave while principal Ryan and the assistant superintendent of the diocese conducted an investigation of the coaches, the students and their families."
Cerbone claims that Ryan and the associate superintendent questioned him about "the supervision of the players and whether he had any knowledge of the incidents. Mr. Cerbone responded that he had no prior knowledge of the incidents, and again reiterated that he had contacted CPS and that he believed this was an issue for the police department."
Two days later, Cerbone says, he received a letter from Ryan informing him that he was being fired for failing to properly supervise the students.
"Specifically, the letter stated: 'Based on the facts we gathered during our investigation, we have determined that it was a lack of supervision within the football program that created the opportunities for the students to engage in highly inappropriate behavior while on the main field on Thursday afternoons. We also have concluded that the scheduling of supervision and monitoring of students that would have prevented these incidents fell squarely within your responsibilities as head coach. Whether or not you had direct knowledge of the hazing activities at the time they occurred, the fact that they could have been prevented by proper supervision makes this lapse unacceptable,'" the complaint states. 19
Five students were expelled for hazing, Cerbone says, but he was only coach to be fired. He says the four coaches who did not report the abuse "were all reinstated."
Cerbone claims Ryan and the diocese retaliated against him because they were afraid he would "further report the suspected law violations to another government agency."
He claims Ryan defamed him in a statement to KCRA Channel 3 News: "These false and defamatory statements included express and implied accusations that plaintiff was responsible for supervising the students during the time that the sexual and criminal conduct occurred at St. Patrick-St Vincent High School - and therefore bore responsibility for that conduct - for which five (5) students were expelled, and/or that he was not otherwise a competent employee."
Cerbone claims the defamation and his wrongful termination hurt his personal and professional reputations, his ability to find another job, and caused him severe emotional distress.
He seeks compensatory and punitive damages for retaliation, wrongful termination, breach of contract and defamation.
He is represented by Tyler F. Clark with Clark Employment Law of Los Angeles.
St. Patrick-St. Vincent is a private Roman Catholic high school established in Vallejo in 1870 by the St. Vincent Ferrer Parish.
Vallejo, on the northeast shore of San Pablo Bay in Solano County, is one of the largest cities in the Bay Area.