St. Paul’s School pushes to ax statute of limitations on some sex crimes

  • The entrance to the elite St. Paul’s School is seen in August 2015 in Concord. AP file

Monitor staff
Wednesday, May 24, 2017

St. Paul’s School is lobbying New Hampshire lawmakers to repeal the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex crimes involving underage victims, as a new report revealed 13 faculty members had inappropriate relations with students at the prep school decades ago.

A bill filed at the request of St. Paul’s would let victims of sexual assault file criminal charges at any age. But it would preserve restrictions preventing victims from seeking civil damages once they turn 30 years old.

The bill stalled this year after advocates said the repeal should apply evenly to victims of all ages and to both civil and criminal cases.

“If we are going to be moving forward with a statute of limitations reform, it needs to be comprehensive,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Most incidents detailed in the report commissioned by St. Paul’s took place between 1970 and 1988, meaning too much time may have passed to criminally prosecute accused faculty or for former students to sue the school. The allegations range from boundary violations to rape. Under state law, minors who were sexually assaulted by an adult have until age 40 to pursue criminal charges and until age 30 to file a civil lawsuit. There are exceptions, however, because the clock can stop running if a victim leaves the state.

In an interview Monday, Rector Michael Hirschfeld said St. Paul’s School is supportive of removing some of the time restrictions.

“The school would be very interested in having no statute of limitations on adult abuse of children,” he said. St. Paul’s School did not respond to emailed questions about the bill Tuesday.

Victims often wait years or decades to report sexual assault because of feelings of confusion, fear, humiliation or shame over what happened, according to Grady Sexton. At least 38 states don’t have a statute of limitations for prosecuting childhood sexual abuse. Eight have eliminated time limits for bringing civil lawsuits in those kinds of cases, according to Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School.

Hirschfeld spoke with a few lawmakers about the proposal, with mixed success, legislators said. House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff said he declined to put in a bill because he wanted more input from the coalition. Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro said he filed legislation this year to repeal the statute of limitations after meeting with Hirschfeld. Senate Bill 164 seeks to eliminate the time restrictions to prosecute childhood sexual assault, but does not change the civil side.

“Why not remove that particular section so everybody can receive justice? I thought it was the right thing to do,” said D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat. “You have got to take it one step at a time, and that was the first step in a process, other things can follow.”

The bill was held by the Senate Judiciary Committee for more work, along with a similar measure that would repeal the statute of limitations for sexual assault against adults. Currently, adult victims have six years to pursue criminal charges in felony-level sexual abuse cases and one year for misdemeanors.

The measures will come up again next year.

It’s not clear whether St. Paul’s student victims would be affected by the bill, even if it is passed in 2018. D’Allesandro’s proposal does not include a retroactivity clause. Grady Sexton said she is pushing for a two-year limited window when victims whose assaults date back decades could seek prosecution or file lawsuits.

“Sexual abuse is all too common and results in dangerous consequences for victims, their families, and the greater community. The first step towards preventing these crimes is to remove the civil and criminal statute of limitations in sexual assault and abuse cases,” Grady Sexton said in a statement.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)