Ex-portsmouth Abbey Student in Lawsuit Says She Was Sexually Abused by Teacher from 2012-14
By Sean Flynn
Newport Daily News
December 4, 2020
PORTSMOUTH — A woman filed a lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court against Portsmouth Abbey School and a former teacher with a claim the teacher sexually abused her while she was a student at the preparatory school.
The former student is listed as “Jane Doe” because public disclosure would further harm her and her family, according to the lawsuit.
She was sexually abused by her former humanities teacher, Michael Bowen Smith, between 2012 and 2014, her sophomore, junior and senior years at the school, says the 17-page lawsuit, which details how the abuse began and ended.
Jane Doe is represented by attorney Timothy J. Conlon of Providence, who signed the lawsuit.
Portsmouth Abbey is a defendant because it “failed to take any measures to investigate and put an end to the misconduct and protect its young student,” the lawsuit says. “Also, after the sexual abuse was revealed to the school in 2015, the school allowed the perpetrator, Smith, to quietly resign and characterized the situation as simply being about 'inappropriate emails.'"
He had taught at the school for 13 years before he left, the lawsuit says.
Portsmouth Abbey Assistant Headmaster John Perreira, the school’s spokesperson, did not respond to a voicemail or text message to his cell phone. When his office was contacted by The Daily News, an employee said he was out for the day, but he would be contacted. She said he was the only person who would comment on behalf of the school.
The girl received a full scholarship and was 13 when she entered her freshman year in the fall of 2010. “A shy and introverted girl who excelled academically,” the lawsuit says.
It was during her sophomore year when she was enrolled in Smith’s humanities class. He started “spending time with her outside of class," the lawsuit says. “Smith then started to flirt with (her) and eventually introduced sexual banter into their conversations. (She) had never had any sexual experience in her life up until this point in time.”
Toward the end of her sophomore year, in the spring of 2012, Smith invited the girl to stop by his apartment, residential quarters supplied by Portsmouth Abbey on the campus. “It was at that time that Smith first engaged in sexual acts with the plaintiff,” the lawsuit says.
He was in his mid-to-late 40s when he started abusing the girl, who was 15 when the sexual contact began, the lawsuit says.
Beginning in the girl’s sophomore year, her mother “certainly did not suspect child abuse, but rather was very concerned that Smith was injecting himself into the (girl’s) life in a way that clearly violated normal teacher-student boundaries,” the lawsuit says.
“Administrators and staff at Portsmouth Abby brushed the complaint aside and assured (the girl’s) parents that there was nothing amiss,” the lawsuit says. “The school made it clear they felt like (the girl’s) parents were being an annoyance by complaining.”
When she returned to school in the fall of 2012 for her junior year, “Smith’s acts of sexual abuse intensified and became more frequent,” the lawsuit says. “He would direct (her) to come visit him in a room or office that was in a dorm used for day students, where he would then engage in sexual abuse of her. This happened frequently throughout her junior year.”
During her senior year, the 2013-2014 academic year, Smith directed her to visit him at his on-campus apartment by using a hallway that connected a student dorm to the building where staff lived.
“The hallway actually led to a door that was Smith’s basement,” the lawsuit says. “He would have (her) enter and leave using that route.”
Staff and students were suspicious because they were often seen together, the lawsuit says.
The girl attended college on the East Coast, starting in the fall of 2014 and began to realize what Smith had done to her, the lawsuit says. By the spring of 2015, she “started having serious emotional issues and went into a tailspin. This, in turn, caused her to drop out of college at that time.”
That’s when she revealed the sexual abuse to her parents, who informed Headmaster Daniel McDonough and Perreira, according to the lawsuit. “These administrators were told that sexual acts occurred and were provided with emails written by Smith that showed clear proof of his sexual abuse,” the lawsuit says.
Instead of conducting a full-scale investigation, they allowed Smith to “quietly resign,” the lawsuit says.
Smith went on to obtain a teaching position at Siena College in upstate New York and began “a relentless pattern of harassment and cyber-stalking behavior against (the victim),” the lawsuit says. “From 2015-2017, Smith would track (her) online and cyberstalk her. He sent her strange emails from different email accounts (she had blocked his account).”
The woman, then 20, reached out to Portsmouth Abbey in February 2017 for help. “She did not know what else to do at this point,” the lawsuit says.
The school’s administrators steered the woman to a consultant, Kathleen McChesney of Kinsale Management Consulting, and said the school would pay for her services, according to the lawsuit.
“McChesney typically provided consulting to businesses and religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, who had some type of public relations or other crisis or some security matter that needed to be dealt with,” the lawsuit says. “She was affiliated in the past with the United States Catholic Bishops' Conference and later, the Catholic Church's Office of Child Protection.”
McChesney had the woman write a short note directed at Smith that essentially said "leave me alone!" and an agent hand-delivered it to Smith, the lawsuit says.
McChesney referred the woman to a New Mexico law firm, Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie.
“Unbeknownst to Plaintiff, this law firm actually represented the Catholic Church through its Dioceses,” the lawsuit says. “It had a law partner who headed up a ‘Religious Institutions’ practice group that had represented the Catholic Church in the recent past, presumably related to sexual abuse claims. This was a ‘defense’ law firm that represented businesses and churches.”
The lawsuit says “none of the lawyers working on her case ever informed Plaintiff that she had a potential lawsuit against Portsmouth Abbey, nor did they inform her about any potential or real statute of limitations for her claims.”
“Instead, the Lewis, Roca lawyers told Plaintiff she should let them pursue a 'temporary restraining order' against Smith and that her case was one involving ‘domestic violence,’” the lawsuit says. “This was absurd. Plaintiff had been sexually abused by her adult teacher.”
The lawyers were being paid by Portsmouth Abbey and they never explained or informed the woman “about this serious conflict of interest,” the lawsuit says. The firm represented the woman from early 2017 and stalled throughout the year, the lawsuit says. She turned age 21 in October 2017.
“In Rhode Island, the statute of limitations for bringing a civil lawsuit against a school such as Portsmouth Abby was age 21, meaning the victim had to file a lawsuit before age 21,” the lawsuit says.
In November 2017, the lawyers “told her they were going to ‘close’ her file,'" the lawsuit says.
This was a scheme to protect the school, not the woman, the lawsuit alleges. The firm never obtained a restraining order against Smith, and he continued sending her emails and finding out ways to contact her up until the present time, the lawsuit says.
Because of these exceptional circumstances, the attorney Conlon is asking the court for a jury trial and that damages be paid to the woman in an amount to be determined at trial, in spite of the statute of limitations.
The attorney argues the case should be heard under the legal principal of “estoppel,” under which a party is restrained from asserting a particular position in law where it would be inequitable to do so.