Church is sued over molestation
By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
NEW PORT RICHEY -- The mother of a 5-year-old girl has filed a lawsuit against the Gospel Outreach Church of New Port Richey, alleging that her daughter was molested because church officials failed to screen the background of a church volunteer.
Alfonso Morales, 54, pleaded guilty last month to molesting the girl on a church bus in May 2001. He also pleaded guilty to molesting a second 5-year-old girl in the church parking lot in November 2000. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Morales was previously convicted in New York of sexual battery on a child. He was released from prison in 1992 after serving five years.
The lawsuit, filed last week in Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court, alleges that the church, at 6427 U.S. 19, should have learned of Morales' New York conviction by searching public records. A background check should have been conducted before allowing Morales to have contact with children at the church, the lawsuit says.
Morales, according to the suit, was an "active volunteer in the children's music ministry . . . and he regularly assisted in transporting minors to and from the church."
Gospel Outreach minister Jerry Magliulo said he had yet to see the lawsuit. But he disputed that Morales was actively involved with the church's children.
"He was never on the staff, never had a leadership position, never worked with children in any official capacity," Magliulo told the Times Monday evening.
In fact, Magliulo said, it was the rare occasion when Morales had contact with children at the church. Therefore, the minister said, there was no reason to conduct a background check.
The lawsuit also alleges that the church was negligent because another adult volunteer on the bus with Morales did nothing to stop the molestation.
Magliulo said there were adults "sitting all around" Morales, who was accused of molesting the girl as she sat on his lap. None of those adults saw anything unusual, Magliulo said.
"He must have been very secretive," Magliulo said. "It just didn't seem possible."
The minister said Morales was a rider on the bus, not a volunteer.
After the allegations were made public last June, New Port Richey police Detective Jackie Pehote conducted several awareness seminars at the church to determine if there were other victims. Church officials also met with the congregation about the incidents and opened an inquiry, Magliulo said.
Authorities found no other victims beyond the two 5-year-old girls.
Bryant Boydstun Jr., a St. Petersburg attorney representing the victim and her mother in the lawsuit, said his clients have left the church.
"They were very distressed at the church's resistance to accept any responsibility," Boydstun said. The lawsuit was filed after the church rejected an out of court settlement, Boydstun said.
The lawsuit, filed under the name "Jane Doe" to protect the victim's identity, seeks unspecified damages.
-- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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