Local Crime, News

28 join Peabody sexual abuse suit

This article was published 9 months ago.

PEABODY — An additional 28 students joined a class-action lawsuit filed against a former Peabody gym teacher on Thursday, alleging he sexually abused them when they were students, bringing the total number of plaintiffs in the suit to 41. 

The suit, initially filed by Boston Attorney Carmen Durso and Framingham Attorney Michael Heineman in August in Middlesex Superior Court, names James Toltz, now 80, and the City of Peabody as defendants. Toltz is accused of sexual abuse while the city, according to the suit, is alleged to have known “or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, that … Toltz’s interactions with the Plaintiffs were illegal and harmful.”

“As a result of the intentional acts of Defendant Peabody and its employees at Higgins and JFK, the Plaintiffs have been seriously and permanently injured,” the amended complaint reads.

Durso, in a telephone interview Thursday, said both the city and Toltz have been served, and Totlz has yet to respond to the suit. Peabody also does not appear to have filed a response to the suit. 

The total number of claims against Toltz have risen to 58 since the suit was first filed, Duso said, with 17 people coming forward to allege they were abused or witnessed abuse. Those 17 people have not joined the lawsuit, but Durso said he believes that Toltz has “hundreds” of victims. The suit alleges the number of students abused by Toltz may be as high as 500. 

“This is potentially going to be a very big case,” Durso said Thursday, explaining that the 58 victims who have come forward reported abuse or witnessed abuse in each of the 27 years Toltz was employed in Peabody. 

The initial 120-count suit alleges that Toltz sexually abused the students, who ranged in age from 11 to 16 at the time of the alleged assaults, at both the Higgins Middle School and the John F. Kennedy Jr. Junior High school between 1969 and 1996. He allegedly used his position as a gym teacher as a “means to groom students whom he wished to sexually abuse,” according to the suit. 

He is accused of watching young boys while they showered, inappropriate touching, spanking and fondling, offering drugs to the students at school and at his residence, conducting genital examinations under false pretenses, and sexual assault. The suit alleges that Toltz developed a reputation as an abuser amongst students that “any supervisory personnel would have been aware of.”

The amended complaint filed Wednesday contains eight additional counts, and accuses the city of unfair educational practices, negligent supervision, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and common law conspiracy. 

In August, Durso told The Item that the allegations against Toltz are so numerous and span so many years that the city and its schools “had to be aware of this [behavior].”

“It was so frequent that the school couldn’t help but know about this,” Durso said. “You don’t get to do this stuff for this many years without someone being aware that there’s some problem somewhere.”

A request for comment sent to Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt Jr.’s office was not returned.

Durso said the statute of limitations on the victims’ accusations has not yet passed. According to Durso, if a person was sexually abused as a minor they have until age 53 to file suit. If victims are older than 53, they have seven years after they came to understand that they were abused. 

The statute of limitations for a criminal trial is harder to ascertain, Durso said, as it is unclear when Toltz left Massachusetts. Under state law, the statute of limitations is paused while an alleged perpetrator no longer lives in the state.

“If we find that there are people within the criminal statute of limitations we will advise them of that,” he said. 

The suit demands a jury trial and seeks an unspecified amount of damages. It was not clear if Toltz had hired an attorney. 

Charlie McKenna can be reached at [email protected].

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