ADAMS — The Adams-Cheshire Regional School District has opened the door for those claiming to have been sexually assaulted by former custodian Clement St. Hilaire to report those allegations
"If any claimants come forward, the district will address each one respectfully and diligently," interim Superintendent Robert Putnam said in an email and added those claims can be brought directly to him.
Putnam, however, said the school stands by its original January 2017 statement on the matter, which stated after its own investigation it didn't find enough to warrant any kind of settlement or apology to the first two men to bring the allegations to the school's attention.
Last summer, the two former Adams Memorial Junior High students came forward to the School Committee with allegations they were both molested by St. Hilaire in 1976.
The investigation, which did not include interviews with the two men, both now 53, ultimately concluded there was an "absence of proof" that the boys were assaulted by St. Hilaire.
The investigation was conducted by attorney Michael K. Callan, who examined "district records" and interviewed St. Hilaire, who denied the claims, according to the school district.
Callan, who is now a Hampden Superior Court judge, has declined to comment through a spokesperson for the Trial Court.
St. Hilaire was never criminally charged, though he was reportedly contacted by Adams Police about the assaults in 2008.
As part of a monthslong investigation by The Eagle, St. Hilaire admitted in January that he assaulted both William Howcroft and "Frank," who was interviewed on the condition his real name not be used, but insisted they were the only two.
In the days following the publication of the Eagle's initial story, at least seven more men have come forward claiming they too were assaulted by St. Hilaire in a manner similar to that described by Howcroft and Frank.
The men all describe being recruited by St. Hilaire to work as custodial assistants after school and on weekends. They were asked inappropriate questions such as whether they'd seen their father naked and were shown pornography while St. Hilaire touched himself. One man said he walked away from the job before he was physically assaulted; others said they endured varying degrees of molestation.
One man said St. Hilaire encouraged him not to tell anyone, including their own brother to avoid upsetting him, casting suspicion his sibling may have also been a victim.
Michael Donovan, one of those accusers, said he and his parents reported the allegation to Principal Jack Gallivan in the fall of 1976. Gallivan is deceased.
St. Hilaire submitted a letter of resignation on Oct. 22, 1976, and officially retired nine days later.
In response to requests for comment from The Eagle, Putnam on Tuesday reissued a statement first released by the School Committee in January in response to queries by The Eagle on the matter.
"This Committee and the District take allegations of sexual abuse seriously, regardless of when it is alleged to have occurred. The District engaged special counsel experienced in handling sexual abuse claims to investigate and evaluate the allegations and to advise the District," the statement from School Committee Chairman Paul K. Butler reads.
"Because of the threat of suit and the absence of proof that the former employee in fact committed the acts alleged, the Committee decided to take no action until a suit had been filed," according to the statement.
Attorney Matthew Fogelman, who represents both Howcroft and Frank and, says since The Eagle's first story was published, he has been contacted by other men claiming similar abuse. He questioned whether the committee still felt there was an "absence of proof" in the allegations.
"For the school district who previously said that there was an 'absence of proof' that this occurred, even in the face of the perpetrator essentially admitting to it, which is pretty unusual in these cases, even under those circumstances, they found an absence of proof," Fogelman said Tuesday. "I would like to know and I would call upon them to say whether they are still sticking with that position. And I challenge them to stick with that position, quite frankly."
In his email, Putnam said no new claimants have come forward to the School Committee to report abuse at the hands of St. Hilaire.
The email did not address whether he or the committee felt there was still no proof of the original claims, but did say, the district still "stands by," its original statement.
In that statement, Butler denounced student abuse in general and went on to illustrate safeguards in place to help prevent future abuses including staff training, background checks and fingerprinting.
"Let me state unequivocally for everyone on this committee and the District that abuse of any student, in any manner, is totally unacceptable," the statement reads. "The safeguards we have in place today do put as much protection in place as possible to reassure both students and their families alike."
Fogelman said there has been a "wave" of private and public schools grappling with abuse allegations, including St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, which in May, acknowledged 13 former faculty and staff members were involved in sexual misconduct over a 40-year span, beginning in 1948, according to The New York Times.
"I credit institutions like that, which are taking those types of steps; isn't that what we want?" Fogelman said. "Don't we want to know how and why and who knew and how many people it happened to? Isn't that how we collectively grow as a society and move forward and bring some measure of comfort to people who were affected by this?"
"I think it's pretty sad to not take responsibility for the fact that this happened," Fogelman said.
Fogelman also dismissed the notion that anyone who comes forward at this point is simply looking for publicity or financial gain.
"I think unfortunately, for a lot of these guys, it's going to be too late to bring a case," he said, referring to the expiration of the statute of limitations for filing civil or criminal charges.
"Nobody I've talked to, not (Howcroft) or Frank or any of the new people... has had any motivation to just cause harm to somebody or stir up trouble or anything like that," Fogelman said. "I think at this point it seems to me the motivation is purely to raise their hands and to have themselves be counted and to say that this happened to me too."
"If one or two people are brave enough to come forward,other people start realizing they can, too," he said.
"I think it's brave for anyone to come forward, whether they were the first one or the fifth one, there's no reason to question that whatsoever," Fogelman said.
Reach staff writer Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249 or @BobDunn413 on Twitter.
District statement ...
Here is the full text of the public statement read at the Adams-Cheshire School Committee meeting Jan. 23, 2017. It was signed by School Committee Chairman Paul Butler and interim Superintendent Robert Putnam.
In February of 2016 this committee received a letter from an attorney representing 2 former students of this school district. In that letter there were claims of sexual abuse perpetrated by a former employee of the district that took place some 40 years ago. The letter further requested some sort of settlement and closure, neither of which was specific. In the absence of settlement or closure, they would aggressively and publicly sue the district.
This Committee and the District take allegations of sexual abuse seriously, regardless of when it is alleged to have occurred. The District engaged special counsel experienced in handling sexual abuse claims to investigate and evaluate the allegations and to advise the District.
This attorney, among other things, examined District records and had the now 96 year old former employee interviewed.
The former employee denied the allegations to the investigator. The former employee has never been charged with committing any sexual crime. It was found that the employee resigned from the District.
Because of the threat of suit and the absence of proof that the former employee, in fact, committed the acts alleged, the Committee decided to take no action until a suit had been filed.
No suit has been filed against the District by the claimants, or to our knowledge against the former employee. It was never made clear what financial compensation the claimants were seeking.
Let me state unequivocally for everyone on this committee and the District that abuse of any student, in any manner, is totally unacceptable.
As a word of comfort to the community, abuse such as was alleged by the claimants has occurred all too frequently in our society. As a consequence, many things have changed over the years to protect students from this type of alleged behavior. First off is the increased awareness of illicit sexual or physical assault and the need for victims and their advocates to come forward. School and law enforcement authorities are sensitive and alert to the risks and signs of inappropriate behavior. Our teachers and administrators have been trained and have legal obligations to report signs and allegations of abuse. All employees of our schools must pass criminal background checks, including finger printing by local authorities. The safeguards we have in place today do put as much protection in place as possible to reassure both students and their families alike.
The Committee did not make this public before now out of respect for the individuals involved. We are now responding with this public statement because the matter has become public through no action of this district.