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Baptism

Parents say Big Brothers mentor baptized disabled son, 11, without consent

A mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters took a developmentally disabled 11-year-old to a church and threatened to stop taking him to baseball games unless he’d get baptized, according to a lawsuit filed by the boy’s parents.

The suit filed by April and Gregg DeFibaugh Monday in US District Court in Cleveland accused the Big Brother, David Guarnera, 54, and court-appointed guardian Margaret Vaughan, 53, of forcing their religious beliefs on their child and ignoring their wishes of not subjecting him to religious proselytizing. The Plain Dealer reported that the parents claimed the 11-year-old has been plagued with nightmares since the August 28 incident.

Guarnera supposedly told the DeFibaughs that he was taking the child (identified as “V” in the lawsuit) to a church picnic—but omitted that he arranged for Matthew Chesnes, the pastor, to baptize him.

“Defendant Guarnera threatened V that if he did not go through with the baptism, defendant Guarnera would not take him to any more Lake County Captains games,” the lawsuit obtained by Courthouse News stated.

The DeFibaughs, who were not present for the ceremony, said Chesnes and Guarnera held V’s head underwater until he “was choking and could not breathe.” V was apparently unaware what a baptism entailed at the time. They immediately severed ties with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America after learning of the incident.

Though the parents reported the incident to the Geauga County Sheriff’s Department, authorities declined to press charges because they believed the boy didn’t suffer physical injuries and Chesnes and Guarnera had no criminal intent.

Guarnera, who allegedly agreed not to proselytize, took him to the Morning Star Friends Church for picnics and social events. Against the DeFibaughs’ wishes, the 54-year-old would talk about religion with the boy, told him he didn’t like families that didn’t believe in God, and would play religious music on the radio. In the lawsuit, V explained that he was afraid the mentor would abandon him if he didn’t go along with the religious talk.

The New York Post reported that the parents also claimed Vaughan would preach to them about God and left them religious books and tapes.

In 2016, Vaughan was appointed as a guardian for V’s 14-year-old sister, who dealt with behavioral problems. However, Vaughan became involved with the 11-year-old after court proceedings brought to light that the boy was socially awkward and would also benefit from guardianship, The Dealer pointed out.

Along with Guarnera and Vaughan, Chesnes is also included in the lawsuit. The parents are suing for assault and battery, negligence, infliction of emotional distress, and violations of their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. According to WHIO, the DeFibaughs are seeking unspecified damages and attorney’s fees.