ELYRIA — A county judge has taken the rare step of sealing the file of a lawsuit accusing the Church of the Open Door and the private school it operates of ignoring complaints of sexual abuse against a teacher who later was convicted and served six months in jail.
Common Pleas Judge Christopher Rothgery said he sealed the file earlier this month to protect the identity of the victim in the case, who filed the lawsuit against the church, school, Superintendent Michael Bova and former teacher Travis Mulanax in March.
“There was certainly no intent to protect the church, but to protect a young person who is the alleged victim of sexual abuse,” Rothgery said.
But the decision effectively removed any public record of the case. The county clerk of courts office removed a block preventing the public from accessing the case docket on Tuesday, but that’s all anyone can see — specific paperwork in the case remains under seal because it includes the girl’s name.
“The barn door was already open, and the only way to attempt to shut it was to seal it,” Rothgery said.
Tim Smith, an attorney and a Kent State University journalism professor who is an expert on public records, said the move doesn’t protect the girl’s identity because her real name, now listed as Jane Doe, was on the original, publicly filed lawsuit.
“Now you’ve got a problem of closing the barn door after the horse is long gone,” Smith said.
Only one other civil case is under seal in the county, a defamation lawsuit that was sealed by then-Common Pleas Judge Thomas Janas in 2005, according to the clerk’s office.
Michael Polito, the attorney who represents the girl, said he asked Rothgery only to remove her name from the case. The girl, who was a student at Open Door from 2001 to 2003, originally had wanted her name on the case but later changed her mind.
“Some of it had to do with empowerment and being strong, but as time has gone on, she’s realized how hard it can be,” Polito said.
Jeff Ahlgrim, the pastor at the church, said attorneys for the church’s insurance company didn’t oppose the motion, and both sides are still gathering information and preparing to interview witnesses.
“We let it ride. We thought if the judge wants to grant them that, we wouldn’t have a problem with it,” he said.
Mulanax’s 2003 criminal conviction on five counts each of sexual imposition and contributing to the unruliness of a minor — which sent him to jail for six months — took place in county Juvenile Court and is not available to the public unless specifically requested.
Even then, requests for information on the case would have to be reviewed by the county prosecutor before any information was made public, Juvenile Court Administrator Doug Messer said.
Mulanax was fired by the church in May 2002, but the girl had complained about his behavior dating back to 2001, when Mulanax was seen touching her several times, including once in a pool, the lawsuit said. Witnesses also saw Mulanax make inappropriate contact in January 2002 at a school dance.
He is also accused of pursuing the girl, asking her to be his girlfriend, hugging her at the church and hanging out at her locker, according to the lawsuit, which is asking for at least $50,000 in damages.
After one complaint about Mulanax’s behavior, Bova allegedly responded that “we are just huggy-feely in our youth group,” the lawsuit said.
Since Mulanax’s firing, Ahlgrim said, the church and school have imposed new policies and procedures to protect students from future abuse.
“We want to do everything in our power to protect the children in our care,” he said.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.