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A woman repeated her son’s claim of sexual abuse. Now, she’s being sued.

A woman repeated her son’s claim of sexual abuse. Now, she’s being sued.
In 2016, as the stress of wedding planning bore down on Joseph Sinclair, he got into an argument with his parents and told them something that sent his family into a tailspin: As a child, he said, he was sexually abused by a neighbor they had hired to babysit him.

The revelation wreaked havoc on the family, which sought years of therapy to heal. But now they say they are being forced to relive the trauma.

Maureen Sartain, the babysitter Sinclair has accused of abusing him, has filed a lawsuit against Sinclair’s mother, saying in court documents that Marie Sinclair intentionally caused her emotional distress by telling others about the alleged abuse. The case is scheduled to go to trial next month in New York.

“It keeps me up at night,” Marie Sinclair said of the thought of her son being called to testify in the trial. “Because of this ridiculous lawsuit, he’s being forced to confront some painful memories. It is so unfair.”

Sartain declined a request for an interview through her attorney, Scott Mishkin, who referred NBC News to her deposition from last year. In it, Sartain denied abusing Joseph Sinclair. She is not suing for defamation and some legal experts have expressed surprise that the case is scheduled to go to trial.

“What she’s trying to do is get around the truth test by reframing the case,” said Richard Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law. “It’s an effort to repackage a defamation case as an emotional distress case to avoid the truth test.”

Unlike in a suit for emotional distress, the plaintiff in a defamation case has to prove that the statement in question was false.

Sartain’s attorney did not return a request for comment about the nature of the suit.

The Sinclair family avoided Sartain for years after they learned of the alleged abuse, Marie Sinclair said.

“Me and my husband, Jimmy, wanted to kill her,” she said of the babysitter, who lived on the same Smithtown street as the couple until they moved last year. But a therapist told them it wouldn’t be good for Joseph Sinclair’s therapy if they confronted her. “He needed to heal. He needed to get over the guilt and the shame of it, and confronting her would only harm him,” Marie Sinclair said the therapist told them.

She followed that advice for three years. Then, on Nov. 2, 2020, she changed course.

“I see you are friends with Maureen Grennan Sartain on Facebook,” she wrote in direct messages sent to at least a dozen people on the social network, according to the lawsuit, a transcript of her deposition and screenshots of messages Sinclair provided to NBC News. “I want you to know she is a pedophile and raped my child when he was 8 years old. She has never been prosecuted for this crime. If anything I can warn you, your family and your children.”

A Facebook message from Marie Sinclair that reads:
A Facebook message from Marie Sinclair that reads:

She also sent the message to Sartain, adding: “I sent this to your friends. I hope someday you pay for your sick crimes.”

The messages, which were sent to Sartain’s friends and family and to the parents of children she may have cared for, are at the center of a lawsuit Sartain filed against Sinclair alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Sartain’s attorney says in the lawsuit that she was “devastated to see that she was being accused of such conduct and was even more mortified over the fact that this false allegation was being sent to her friends and family.”

The suit accuses Sinclair of having launched a “deliberate and malicious campaign of harassment” that was “intentional, reckless, extreme and outrageous.”

But for the Sinclairs, who believe Sartain to be an abuser, the pending jury trial has landed like a punch, adding insult to injuries they had worked to heal.

Joseph Sinclair, 28, was between the ages of 8 and about 13 when the alleged abuse occurred, he said in an interview with NBC News.

“It has affected every relationship I’ve had, in terms of trust, interpersonal communication,” he said. “I was manipulated, and it makes me feel terrible about myself. That I allowed it, or that I didn’t say anything.”

Not long after they learned about the alleged abuse, the Sinclairs also sought advice from the Suffolk County district attorney’s office in July 2017. In a copy of an email sent to the office that was shared with NBC News, they asked whether Sartain could be prosecuted and what the process would involve.

“How can we prevent her from abusing other children in her care,” the email concluded.

The Sinclairs said they never received a response. Marie Sinclair said she had also called the district attorney’s office with the same inquiry and was told that Joseph Sinclair could press charges but that it would be very difficult to win a criminal case against Sartain because the Sinclairs did not have footage or any other physical evidence of the alleged abuse.

A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said in a statement: “We cannot comment on matters from the prior administration as those in leadership from that time period are no longer employed here.” The spokesperson said the office is willing to speak with the Sinclairs and provided a name and phone number for an investigator. The spokesperson declined to comment further, saying, “sexual assault victims cannot be outed without their consent.”

Joseph Sinclair said he never pursued criminal or civil action against Sartain because his focus has been on trying to heal.

“During my years of therapy, eventually, one of our goals was to come to that decision — whether or not I wanted to,” he said.

But now he plans to testify on his mother’s behalf, he said. Jury selection is scheduled to begin April 22 on Long Island.

“I want her to be held accountable,” he said of Sartain. “And I want her to be seen as the terrible person she is.”

In a deposition taken last year, Sartain testified that she babysat for a handful of other families from approximately 1990 to 2002. After Marie Sinclair told people about the alleged abuse, Sartain testified that she started having panic attacks every couple of days, would sometimes have trouble sleeping, had worsening jaw pain, and felt stressed.

“I don’t like going out,” she said, according to a transcript of the deposition. “I feel like neighbors have shunned me. People on Facebook have unfriended me.”

At Marie Sinclair’s deposition, Sartain’s attorney repeatedly asked Sinclair what her intention was in sending the messages and whether she cared at all about how they would affect Sartain. Sinclair responded that she wanted to warn people about who she believed Sartain to be and was concerned for any other potential victims.

“If she was upset by it, that’s on her,” Sinclair responded, according to a transcript of the deposition. “I was worried about the families that I was sending it to.”

About two weeks after she sent the messages, Sinclair received a cease-and-desist letter from Sartain’s attorney demanding, among other things, that she “immediately publish an apology for her false statements.” The lawsuit was filed three months later, in February 2021.

It is not uncommon, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, for people who come forward to allege sexual assault and harassment to be sued for defamation by their alleged perpetrators. But Sartain’s case differs from many of those in that, while she denies the allegations, she is not suing for defamation nor is she suing the person whom she is alleged to have abused.

Benjamin Zipursky, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York, described this approach as a “backdoor maneuver.”

“Sometimes, people try to take a kind of alternative lawsuit for a variety of reasons,” Zipursky said. “One of the most common reasons is they believe defamation law has been crafted by the courts, including the Supreme Court over the last many decades, to be very protective of speakers and to make it very hard for plaintiffs who have been defamed to prevail.”

Some attorneys who believe there may be too many defenses available to defendants for their client to win may shift to another category, Zipursky said, adding that one of the most common would be intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Zipursky, who specializes in tort law and defamation law, said the jury will have to decide whether Marie Sinclair’s conduct was extreme and outrageous.

“If this is what her boy told her had happened to him, then I don’t think that they’re going to think it was outrageous for her to say so,” he said.

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