Lawsuit filed against Baltimore's St. Frances Academy, former teacher in sex abuse case

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against an East Baltimore Catholic school and a teacher who worked there following his arrest in a sex abuse case.The lawsuit filed on behalf of the student alleges that Ryan Penalver, 27, a history teacher who had worked at St. Frances Academy, used his school email account to prey on the 15-year-old who expressed a desire to harm herself.

“This family [of the victim] is devastated and has asked us to uncover exactly how this happened,” said attorney Hassan Murphy, whose firm, Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, is handling the case.

The lawsuit alleges that prior to his abuse of the victim, listed under the pseudonym “Jill Doe,” Penalver had also engaged in inappropriate communications with other students and that members of the school community were aware of this.

“Every school should know, should monitor, should understand who they are entrusting the children that attend their school with, and it’s clear that St. Frances did not do a good job on this.”

School principal Deacon Curtis Turner said he could not comment on the suit, but said, “We remain committed to making sure that our school environment is a safe one.”

On Friday, Turner sent a letter to parents saying that the school received a tip that Penalver was involved with a student last week and reported the issue to Child Protective Services. Child Protective Services notified the Baltimore Police Department, which investigated the incident and arrested Penalver on Friday, police spokesman Det. Jeremy Silbert said.

Penalver was arrested last week and charged with sexual abuse of a minor, third-degree sex offense, two fourth-degree sex offenses, second-degree child abuse and perverted practice, court records show.

A spokesman for Baltimore City Police said earlier this week that no other students had come forward to report problems with Penalver.

No lawyer was listed for Penalver in court records, and he could not be immediately reached for comment.

In addition to Penalver and St. Frances Academy, the lawsuit names the Archdiocese of Baltimore as a defendant.

Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said that St. Frances Academy falls outside of the diocesan school system, and that the Archdiocese does not operate all Catholic schools in the area. The school is owned and operated by the Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Why we were named, I have no idea,” Caine said. “We have no governance over them, no formal relationship with them … no oversight whatsoever.”

Murphy said they are still attempting to figure out the corporate structure of the school and may amend the complaint in the future.

According to the suit, the alleged sexual abuse of “Jill Doe” happened earlier this month on school property, although Penalver is accused of “grooming” the victim in the weeks prior through email and sexually explicit text messages, pictures and videos.

Victims of sexual abuse are at increased risk of suicide, depression and other mental health problems, said Murphy. The suit, he said, aims to seek immediate treatment for “Jill Doe” and other potential victims.

Asked whether the law firm has calculated an amount they were seeking in damages, Murphy said: “It’s impossible to know. This right now is about information gathering.”

Penalver was released Monday, court records show. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 12.

Baltimore Sun reporters Sarah Meehan and Jonathan Pitts contributed to this story.

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