Judge: AG can’t issue public grand jury report on St. Paul’s investigation

  • St. Paul's School in Concord, Monday, May 22, 2017. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 9/30/2019 8:25:11 AM

A court order prohibits the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office from publicly releasing witness testimony and other materials provided to a grand jury during the state’s criminal investigation of St. Paul’s School.

That investigation concluded more than one year ago and did not result in criminal charges. Instead, the Concord prep school agreed to a three- to five-year period of government oversight to ensure compliance with the state’s mandatory reporting laws on child abuse, to include sexual assault.

As part of the criminal probe, the grand jury heard from dozens of witnesses from as far away as California and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, which the attorney general’s office planned to use in its abridged report to the public. In the settlement agreement, signed Sept. 13, 2018, St. Paul’s waived confidentiality in the grand jury proceedings – a step that officials believed paved the way for a future public report.

One year later, a judge has ruled that the act of compiling and releasing a report, based on what state law clearly establishes are secret proceedings, would defy precedent and jeopardize the privacy interests of sexual assault victims and those accused but never criminally charged.

The attorney general’s office “does not merely seek access to documents: it seeks to prepare a report, with the imprimatur of a grand jury investigation and submit it to the public. SPS does not seek to prepare such a report. In fact, it is quite likely that the material provided to the grand jury could not be submitted to the public because it would contain confidential information about former employees of SPS and former students of SPS,” wrote Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara.

McNamara continued by noting that the grand jury investigation is long over.

“Any ‘grand jury report’ produced by the OAG (office of the attorney general) will not be presentment by the grand jury of its conclusions that someone should be charged,” he wrote. “Rather, it will be the OAG’s summary of what it believes is relevant for the public to know about the grand jury’s deliberations.”

Before the attorney general’s office could produce a report, it sought permission from witnesses and gave them 14 days to object to prosecutors’ use of their testimony and to the report itself. A group identified only as “Doe Witnesses” objected on the grounds that there is no precedent in New Hampshire for a grand jury report or for the proposition that they could assign their First Amendment rights to the attorney general who would, in effect, choose what to release from their testimony.

In preparing his order, McNamara acknowledged the far-reaching consequences that releasing confidential information could have on people’s lives, especially in the Internet age.

“An allegation of wrongdoing or impropriety, based upon half-truths, illegally seized evidence, or rumor, innuendo or hearsay may blight an individual’s life indefinitely. Private and embarrassing information about the trauma suffered by a victim of sexual abuse may become public and remain public forever,” he wrote. “The difficulty is magnified by the fact that statutory procedures in other states that allow grand jury reports to be promulgated and provide procedural safeguards may lead people to believe that there is some evidentiary value to a grand jury report that was issued in New Hampshire with absolutely no procedural safeguards.”

McNamara wrote his order on the presumption that it should and would be made public and, therefore, he did not include any confidential information from the sealed case file. None of the parties objected to the release of the order.

The state attorney general’s office launched its 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.

Over the course of 14 months, prosecutors examined how St. Paul’s responded to reports of sexual assault and misconduct, including whether the school endangered the welfare of children or broke a law that prohibits the obstruction of criminal investigations. They also reviewed independent reports released by the school in 2017 and 2018 that substantiates accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse by 20 named faculty and staff, spanning six decades of the school’s history.

The settlement agreement that concluded that investigation was later praised by legal experts who said it holds the school accountable and could facilitate real cultural change, whereas a lengthy prosecution for misdemeanor offenses would have had a minimal lasting effect. Since February, an independent compliance overseer, who answers to the state attorney general, has been on school grounds.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)

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