Our Opinion: ACRSD report leaves unanswered questions

In August of 2016, two men claiming to have been sexually abused as students by then-custodian Clement St. Hilaire at Adams Memorial Middle School in 1976 told their story to The Eagle. While it is true that none of the current members of the Adams-Cheshire Regional District School Committee was holding office in 1976, that Mr. St. Hilaire is now living in retirement in his 90s, and the statute of limitations long ago expired when it comes to any possible criminal action, these men and others who have come forward since their admission deserve some measure of justice.

Unfortunately, justice in this matter appears to be less of a priority than hoping the whole problem will simply disappear if not addressed directly.

After the two men came forward, their testimony was supported by more than 15 others who also claimed to be victims of Mr. St. Hilaire over a period of six years (Eagle, September 13). In 2016, when the men first approached the district with their allegations, its response was to hire an attorney to conduct an investigation. He eventually wrapped it up citing an "absence of proof." Incredibly, the two claimants were not even contacted in the course of the probe, which was confined to a perusal of "records," those being contemporaneous district records that were far from comprehensive.

Last September, once the other alleged victims appeared with their claims, the district hired attorney Nancy Frankel Pelletier, who was described by Committee Chairman Paul Butler as "an attorney experienced in handling claims of sexual abuse," to conduct a second investigation — a point he made publicly at a committee meeting on September 11. It is here that the trail becomes slippery.

Ever since Ms. Pelletier's hiring four months ago, the two original claimants have been awaiting contact from the district. In fact, there is some question as to whether a second "investigation," as such, was ever mounted at all. An announcement by the committee on Monday in the wake of an executive session concluded, "For purposes of clarity, the district engaged Atty. Nancy Frankel Pelletier to provide advice to the district with respect to sexual abuse matters generally and in the event a claim is brought or filed. She was not hired or asked to perform an investigation."

And with that, the district — citing the fact that no claim or suit had yet been filed — called a halt to an investigation that, by its lights, never even took place.

Mr. Butler, in an email to The Eagle on Tuesday, said that "fewer than eight" people had contacted the district with allegations, and that of those, four had spoken to "district personnel." While confidentiality regarding the identities of the complainants is understandable, no further information has been forthcoming from Mr. Butler, Superintendent Robert Putnam or anyone else. The "district personnel," for all anyone knows, may have included a cafeteria lady, a groundskeeper, one of Mr. St. Hilaire's successors in office and a crossing guard. The number at the very least should be definitive.

The claimants, through their attorney, have indicated that they are not interested in seeking monetary civil damages from the district for transgressions committed decades ago; they desire merely an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing — and most important in terms of helping to make them whole, an official apology. In light of this, it is particularly perplexing that the district, rather than settling upon this simple and just solution, would halt a phantom probe and summarily wash its hands of the matter. Declaring that a lack of civil action precludes the necessity of a full and deep investigation flies in the face of the responsibility borne by the committee to discover exactly what happened, how it was allowed to happen (and to continue), why nothing was done at the time, and most important, how such heinous crimes can be prevented in the future.

The committee may fear that an admission that crimes occurred, along with an apology, would expose the financially-strapped district to liability. After all, the statute of limitations does not apply in civil cases. If that is so, then their tactics amount to a gauntlet thrown down to victims who seek little more than a compassionate gesture as recompense for their ordeal.

As the late Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, the ranking member of the Senate Watergate Committee, said over 40 years ago, "It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble." The Adams-Cheshire Regional School Committee should heed those words and introduce transparency and clarity to this troubling issue.


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