Families of three former Santo Niño Regional Catholic School students filed lawsuits Thursday accusing the school and others of failing to protect the children from sexual assault by former art teacher Aaron Dean Chavez, who a Santa Fe County jury in October convicted of molesting one of the students.
One suit was filed on behalf of two children who testified at his trial regarding allegations that he molested them while they were students in 2007, 2012, 2015 and 2016.
The jury in the criminal case couldn’t reach a verdict on allegations made by one of the students who testified. Prosecutors said they will seek to retry her claims in the future. Chavez has yet to be sentenced.
That lawsuit also names most of the Catholic churches in the area — including Santa Maria De La Paz, San Isidro, St. John the Baptist, St. Anthony of Padua-Pecos, Cristo Rey Parish, Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe-Santa Fe and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi — on the grounds that the churches supported and promoted the school.
The complaint in state District Court accuses the defendants of breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, fraud, racketeering and other misconduct, saying the school defrauded the families and stole their money by advertising the school as a safe place and accepting tuition from families but failing to prevent students from being molested by Chavez.
“This could have been prevented if adults had done the right thing and fulfilled their responsibilities to protect these kids,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Carolyn Nichols said Thursday.
Nichols said the families didn’t name the Archdiocese of Santa Fe as a defendant because the archdiocese has filed for bankruptcy in the wake of numerous costly sex-abuse claims, so any proceedings against the archdiocese would have to proceed in bankruptcy court.
The other lawsuit filed Thursday was brought by a family who says a 6-year-old was molested by Chavez in 2012 but the school did nothing.
“Shockingly,” the complaint says, “the schooled allowed Chavez to continue teaching, ensuring his continued access to new victims.”
That lawsuit also names as a defendant the Rev. Adam Ortega y Ortiz, a former rector at the Santa Fe cathedral, who was on the board of the school.
Both lawsuits name Chavez and the school’s former principal, Theresa Vaisa, as defendants.
Vaisa did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
A woman who answered the phone at Santo Niño directed questions to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Chavez’s attorney in the criminal case said Chavez will not make any comments and declined to comment himself on the civil suits, which seek unspecified damages.