The prestigious St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton is facing a defamation lawsuit from a former headmaster who claims school statements led people to believe his resignation was tied to a sexual abuse scandal.
Peter Benedict claims the boarding and day school and its former chairwoman, Mary Jo Finocchiaro, accused him of protecting a pedophile and helping steal $12 million from the school before his April 2016 resignation. The accusations were printed in the Palm Beach Post, the Sun Sentinel and other news media, according to the lawsuit filed Friday in Palm Beach Circuit Court.
Since then, Benedict has been unable to work in education or even volunteer at his local Boys & Girls Club, according to his lawyers, Gregory Weiss and Alan Rose of Mrachek, Fitzgerald, Rose, Konopka, Thomas & Weiss in West Palm Beach. Benedict’s resignation agreement included a promise from the school that it would provide him with a recommendation letter, but he still doesn’t have one, the lawsuit claims.
“He was doing everything he could to try and get something in writing from the school to set the record straight so he could restart his career,” Weiss said. “But after not being able to do that for so long, this is what he’s left with. He doesn’t want to be in a defamation lawsuit. He would much rather be able to get back to his career in education.”
St. Andrew’s spokesman Carlos Barroso declined to comment on the recommendation letter. But he cited a June 2016 email sent by the school to parents and other stakeholders denying Benedict’s involvement in any crimes.
“We have heard numerous rumors about Peter Benedict,” the email states. “These rumors are destructive and at odds with our school’s core values — Honor, Integrity, and Respect. We implore you to dispel this misinformation. Mr. Benedict and St. Andrew’s School agreed to a mutual separation due to differences in philosophy, especially in areas of risk management and safety. The mutual agreement to separate was not due to any allegations of sexual abuse or illegal activity on his part.”
The email also discussed an internal investigation of a former teacher’s inappropriate behavior toward students, which the investigation found did not include abuse.
That message came a month after the St. Andrew’s board of trustees released a newsletter containing two bullet points about conversations taking place at private schools around the country about a Boston Globe investigation of sexual abuse at boarding schools. In the next point on the list, the bulletin said the board worked with lawyers to consider its decision to terminate Benedict.
“Prior to the statements being released, several members of the faculty specifically advised the board that the public is likely to make a false association between Peter’s termination and the salacious allegations,” Weiss said. “Even despite that warning, they went ahead and did exactly that.”
In June 2016, the Palm Beach Post reported Finocchiaro told a school employee Benedict helped board member William Caragol divert millions of dollars to a business in Mexico. The article detailed allegations Caragol made in a separate defamation lawsuit against Finocchiaro, which settled in October 2016.
Finocchiaro and the preschool-Grade 12 school also provided copies of the sexual abuse investigation report to the media, leading to a string of articles about statements in the report such as “Benedict knew of sex abuse in the boys’ dorm,” according to the former headmaster’s lawsuit.
Benedict “did not ignore warnings, put students at risk or fail to share information with the authorities,” according to his lawsuit. Weiss declined to say why Benedict was forced out besides saying his termination was not linked to any sexual abuse allegations.
Finocchiaro did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Benedict is seeking economic damages for his inability to find work in his field as well as damages for pain and suffering.
St. Andrews opened as an Episcopal boys boarding school in 1962 and started admitting girls in 1971. Annual tuition ranges from $23.490 for pre-kindergarten to $40,650 for high school.