N.H. attorney general’s settlement agreement with St. Paul’s “unprecedented”

September 26, 2018

N.H. attorney general’s settlement agreement with St. Paul’s “unprecedented”

 

"Oversight Established by Attorney General on St. Paul's School in Response to Sexual Assaults"

 

 Saturday, September 15, 2018

An agreement that places St. Paul’s School under government oversight is the first of its kind for an educational institution in New Hampshire and could serve as a model for other states responding to a history of sexual abuse and misconduct at prestigious prep schools, legal experts say.

Attorney General Gordon MacDonald announced Thursday the settlement agreement, which establishes the position of an independent monitor who will be tasked with ensuring that St. Paul’s is in compliance with the state’s mandatory report laws. The attorney general is forgoing prosecution of the Concord prep school on child endangerment charges following a 14-month-long criminal investigation in favor of what he called “comprehensive reform.”

Lawyers for sexual abuse victims and law enforcement officials who worked on the investigation said the settlement is the best possible outcome because it holds St. Paul’s accountable and could facilitate real cultural change, whereas a misdemeanor-level conviction would likely have a minimal lasting effect.

“This settlement is truly groundbreaking,” said Boston-based attorney Eric MacLeish, who has represented hundreds of sexual assault victims including several at St. Paul’s. “It represents one of the few times that a prep school has submitted to governmental oversight. Such settlements are usually reserved for civil right abuses occurring at state institutions.”

A similar non-prosecutorial agreement was signed in 2002 by then-Attorney General Phillip McLaughlin and Roman Catholic Bishop John B. McCormack following an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and diocesan leaders over four decades. The state’s agreement with the Dioceses of Manchester sought to “ensure a system of accountability, oversight, transparency, and training.” Identical phrasing appears in the recent St. Paul’s settlement crafted by MacDonald, who previously represented the dioceses in cases brought by clergy sex abuse victims.

Concord-based attorney Chuck Douglas said the settlement agreement is a template that attorneys in other states could certainly look to in the future as a mechanism for accountability and enforcement. Douglas, who represented the parents of sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout in a federal civil lawsuit against St. Paul’s, said victims have been calling for oversight at St. Paul’s for some time, and this agreement is a solid first step in responding to those calls.

“The school can’t just say, ‘We have a new rector and things will be different.’ That’s not enough given the steady drumbeat of sexual abuse cases coming out of the last 40 to 50 years,” Douglas said.

St. Paul’s Interim Rector Amy Richards, who began her one-year term Aug. 1, said in an interview following the settlement announcement that both the school and the attorney general are eager to have a compliance overseer in place as soon as possible. The school must submit the names of three possible candidates to the attorney general’s office which will have the final say and could reject St. Paul’s initial list of applicants.

The salary and related expenses of the compliance overseer will be paid by the school; however, the person answers to the attorney general. The position will be reviewed after three years, and the overseer will make a recommendation to the attorney general about whether an additional year or two of monitoring is needed, according to the agreement.

Richards and St. Paul’s Board of Trustees President Archibald Cox Jr. sent a letter to members of the school community Thursday informing them of the agreement, which they said will be discussed further with current students.

Cox said in an interview on campus Thursday afternoon that school administration has had a good relationship with the attorney general’s office and expects that to continue moving forward.

“We’re fine with the agreement. We’re fine to have a settlement,” Cox said.

Alumnus Alexis Johnson said he was struck by the tone the school has taken on the settlement agreement.

“After several decades of examination, and more decades of ethical and legal violations that preceded the examination of the school, it strikes me that being okay with the agreement is at best an understatement,” Johnson said. “Remember, as we must, this agreement arises out of a criminal investigation, and it has resulted in a suspension of criminal prosecution pending execution by the school of compliance duties it has failed at performing historically. To the extent that the school avoided criminal prosecution, maybe the school is ‘fine’ with (the agreement), but to the extent that this speaks to the health of the school, even today, the school’s assessment is concerning.”

MacDonald declined during Thursday’s press conference to discuss in detail the evidence that investigators found in support of child endangerment charges against the school. He noted that the office plans to release a report – that includes grand jury materials – contingent upon approval from a superior court judge.

“The school’s primary focus was protecting its reputation, protecting itself, rather than protecting the children entrusted to its care, and that is a summary of the evidence we saw during the course of the investigation,” MacDonald said.

State prosecutors launched the criminal investigation into St. Paul’s handling of sexual misconduct and abuse allegations in July 2017 in partnership with the Merrimack County attorney, New Hampshire State Police and the Concord Police Department.

MacDonald said Thursday the investigation would not have been possible without the victims who courageously shared their stories.

“This is an important day and an important agreement, but we would not be here without the courage of former St. Paul’s students who are witnesses as well as survivors; former students who have come forward and truthfully told their stories to us even if it meant fracturing relationships and friendships,” he said. “They did so because it was the right thing to do. Their courage and strength inspired and motivated our work.”

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