ST. PETERSBURG — Three former youth group leaders say First Unity Church officials ignored their concerns about a board member they believed made sexual advances toward young men at the church.
The youth leaders said their memberships in the 700-strong congregation were revoked after they reported their concerns last year.
This week, Francine Arrington, one of the youth leaders, filed a whistle-blower lawsuit, saying she was also fired from her job as the church's director of youth education. She was hired in July 2006.
The suit, filed by attorney David Linesch in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, says Arrington was fired for "voicing her opposition to the conduct of the Defendant (First Unity) and specifically its retention of a sexual predator who was a member of the Defendant's counseling staff and the Board of Trustees."
Church officials declined to comment due to the litigation.
In March, St. Petersburg police arrested Richard O'Toole, 69, for presenting himself as a licensed mental health counselor and offering services to church members. O'Toole was charged with six counts of practicing medicine without a license.
He was a First Unity Church member for nine years and a board member for 21/2 years. He is no longer a member.
Detective Joe Gasper said police began investigating O'Toole after the former youth group leaders contacted them with concerns about O'Toole.
He is not charged with any crimes involving sexual abuse against children and is not on the state sex offender registry. But police say they are still investigating whether O'Toole may have engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with youths as well as whether any more people were duped by his claims of being a mental health specialist.
"The investigation is still open," Gasper said.
Police have investigated an additional case in which O'Toole allegedly made advances toward a youth but said no charges were filed because the statute of limitations had expired.
In 1997, O'Toole was arrested on a charge of simple battery after showing a boy a pornographic film and then grabbing the clothed boy in a sexual manner. O'Toole pleaded no contest and adjudication was withheld.
He did not respond to messages Tuesday seeking comment.
The lawsuit says Arrington, 52, first learned O'Toole had made sexual advances toward two young men in early 2007. She said she reported the conduct to the church's minister, Temple Hayes, and learned that Hayes had been contacted by the grandparent of a third young man who also was concerned about O'Toole.
But Hayes continued to let O'Toole interact with youths, the lawsuit says. In October 2007, Arrington was fired.
That same month, two other youth group leaders —Arrington's husband, Jim Arrington, and Tom Crowley — said they encountered a 17-year-old who did yard work for O'Toole and accused him of making a sexual advance.
The former youth group leaders said they told Hayes about the incident and called police.
Police said they could not charge O'Toole in connection with that case due to insufficient evidence. But the report led them to uncover that O'Toole was passing himself off as a licensed mental health counselor.
Jim Arrington and Crowley said the church told them they were no longer welcome as members. "They were protecting the church rather than protecting the children," said Crowley, 58.
Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.