Three families filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a Norristown parish preschool over the sexual abuse of three children between the ages of 2 and 3 by a former teacher.
Michael Barbee, 34, was sentenced in June to four to eight years in state prison for sexually abusing the children, for which he pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual contact with a minor and aggravated indecent assault of a child. Barbee worked at the school, St. Francis Early Learning Center, in 2016-17.
Barbee sexually abused two girls and a boy in a school bathroom, the suit alleges. The families discovered the abuse after the children complained of pain, for which one child was treated at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
The suit alleges that Barbee didn't have the experience or qualifications to be a preschool teacher and that he was not properly screened to determine if he posed a safety risk to children.
The suit accuses the school and diocese of negligence, negligent supervision, negligent hiring and retention, premises liability, and negligent infliction of emotional stress.
"There should have been a more rigorous screening process, particularly for this individual who was going to work with young, vulnerable children," said lawyer David Inscho, who is representing the parents of the children as co-counsel with Tom Kline, both with Kline & Specter of Center City.
"These are three families who entrusted their children to the church's school and they were violated," Inscho said. "That trust was betrayed."
The suit says that the archdiocese and school "knew or should have known before 2017 that the School attracted men with pedophile tendencies and who posed a risk to the safety of children," and therefore should have been able to determine in background screenings that Barbee had similar tendencies.
After the school was alerted to the alleged abuse and Barbee was arrested, the school sent two letters to all parents in early 2017 that did not include information about the sexual abuse, the suit claims.
Archdiocese spokesperson Ken Gavin wrote in an email Tuesday that after the families alerted the school, "it was reported promptly to law enforcement" and "broad notification regarding the alleged abuse" was made to all parents at the school. Barbee was placed on leave and was not permitted to return to the school, Gavin said.
St. Francis is a part of the St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Norristown. The early learning center enrolls children 6 weeks through 4 years old, according to its website.
Gavin said the school and parish have been cooperating fully with authorities in the matter.