(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)
A Safety Harbor woman is suing a Clearwater church, claiming it was negligent in failing to do a criminal background check on a volunteer who later was convicted of sexually abusing her 12-year-old son.
The woman said a simple, inexpensive background check by Northwood Presbyterian Church would have shown that the volunteer, Michael David Sullivan, had faced a similar charge in the past.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in Pinellas County under the names John and Jane Doe to protect the identity of the boy.
Sullivan, 34, is under house arrest in Lakeland while his conviction is on appeal. He denied the allegations and said the boy's claims changed each time he was questioned.
"It's hard to defend yourself against a moving target," he said.
Sullivan was charged in 1988 in Pinellas County with committing lewd and lascivious acts in the presence of a child and soliciting a child for prostitution. State records indicate he pleaded no contest and judgment was withheld.
Sullivan said he was a paid music director at a Pinellas County church at the time, and that he was young and put himself in a situation he shouldn't have been in. He said he pleaded no contest to reduced charges to help smooth things over.
Sullivan said he faced two separate trials involving the Northwood boy. In the first, in Orlando in August, he said a jury found him innocent. In the second trial, in Pinellas in January, he was convicted. He said it was because prosecutors brought up the 1988 charge.
The Northwood lawsuit, which also lists Sullivan as a defendant, accuses Sullivan of committing the sex acts in bathrooms at the church and in bathrooms on youth group field trips to Adventure Island in Tampa and Universal Studios in Orlando from June to September 1994. The claims include Sullivan fondling himself in front of the boy and performing oral sex on the boy.
Ken Wilson, Northwood Presbyterian's associate pastor, referred all questions to the church's attorney, Tom Donnelly of Clearwater, who could not be reached for comment.
Tom Carey, the Clearwater lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said churches must do background checks on anyone who works with children.
"Parents place their children rather blindly into the trust of churches," Carey said. "It's kind of an ideal environment for a pedophile because the whole thing is based on trust."
Sullivan said that key officials at Northwood knew about his history and that a criminal background check wouldn't have changed anything.
At least one local church does background checks on both its paid employees and its volunteers who work with children.
Traci Lee, who works in administration at Countryside Christian Center, said Tuesday that the checks make sense.
At Countryside Christian, volunteers are asked to pay their own $15 fee for the state checks of criminal history, if they can afford to do so. If they can't, the church pays for the checks.
Lee said the church began making the checks five years ago, prompted by advice from attorneys attending a national church conference. It is now looking into ways to do national background checks as well as state checks.
The woman who filed the civil lawsuit in Pinellas said she hopes to prevent Sullivan from harming anyone else and to get enough money for her son to have the counseling he will need.
And she said she hopes to alert other churches that not only do they have a moral responsibility to protect children, they may have a legal and monetary responsibility as well.