The attorney general’s office made waves Thursday night in announcing its plans to launch a criminal investigation into St. Paul’s School over its handling of sexual assaults on school grounds.
While the investigation is still just in its beginning stages, some are already starting to draw parallels to a time when the state took on another powerful institution over its handling of sexual abuse: the Catholic Church.
Prominent New Hampshire Attorney Chuck Douglas is representing former St. Paul’s student Chessy Prout in a lawsuit against the school, alleging it fell short in its responsibilities to protect Prout — who was sexually assaulted by fellow student Owen Labrie as part of a so-called “senior salute” ritual.
Almost two decades ago, Douglas also helped dozens of victims of sexual abuse reach settlements with the Catholic church over abuse they experienced at the hands of local priests. At that time, the attorney general’s office was pursuing its own investigation against the diocese.
“It was time, just as it was with the diocese of Manchester to get some outside investigation – not people hired and working for the institution,” Douglas said Friday. “And it mirrors exactly what happened in the proceedings in the church here in New Hampshire.”
The New Hampshire attorney general’s investigation into the church began as a criminal investigation but ultimately ended in a civil settlement — which, Douglas notes, included mandatory annual audits and other steps meant to hold the institution accountable in the years that followed.
“I think, having represented about 50 of the victims, it was effective in many ways because there were retirements, there were new procedures put in place for monitoring,” Douglas said. “The mere fact that some outside force is peering over your shoulder on an annual basis has its own effect.”
In bringing forward this case against St. Paul’s, Douglas said Attorney General Gordon MacDonald is sending a clear signal to institutions that they should be on notice, but also that survivors should feel safe coming forward.
“I think what he does here will set an example. I mean, we have several private schools in New Hampshire. And they’re good schools, but unfortunately just like with the priests, or with the Boy Scouts who’ve had issues and cleaned up with a lot of them… When you have adults and children in living quarters and in close proximity, there are risks.”
In a statement issued Thursday, St. Paul’s Rector Mike Hirschfeld said the school will cooperate fully with any investigation.