On a November day in 2014, Carole Trickett had just spent an hour testifying before a grand jury about a part of her childhood she spent most of her 79 years trying to put out of her mind, when a Bucks County prosecutor posed one last question to the 1954 Solebury School graduate.
How did she think the alleged sex abuse she experienced as a child at the hands of one of the school’s founders affected her life?
The Maine resident answered, but only after she took two minutes to compose herself, she said during a recent phone interview. She doesn’t recall her exact answer, but does remember the question left her astonished.
“They need to understand this is not just having your appendix out. It’s affected me in many ways,” said Trickett. “It doesn’t go away.”
While the painful memories of child sex abuse don’t expire, the time limits for victims to take court action against their abusers does.
For example, only one of the reportedly dozens of alleged sex abuse victims over decades at Solebury School, a private boarding school, falls within the legal time frames for pursuing criminal and civil action, according to sources close to the now 18-month-old grand jury investigation.
Trickett and others want to see that changed. It’s why she will appear, along with other alleged Solebury School sex abuse victims and statute of limitations reform supporters, at the Pennsylvania Capitol on Wednesday for an event to bring attention to proposed legislation that would extend — in some cases eliminate — those time limits.
House Bill 1947, the first piece of legislation since 2002 addressing the statute of limitations on child sex abuse claims both civilly and criminally, was passed out of the House last month.
The bill seeks to add 20 years to the current civil deadline for alleged victims who are now under age 50, extending it until their 50th birthday. It also would waive sovereign immunity for state and local public institutions in cases of “gross negligence,” meaning that abuse victims could file civil suits against them, as well as their perpetrators.
It also would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for certain sex crimes — such as rape — against children. Currently, prosecutors can pursue criminal charges of sex abuse until a victim’s 50th birthday, but only if the victim is now under age 40, said attorney Marci Hamilton, a senior fellow for research on religion at the University of Pennsylvania and academic chair of CHILD USA, a new think tank focused on child abuse and neglect. Pennsylvania’s current criminal statute of limitations already has expired for victims over age 40, she said.
“The problem that we face is that perpetrators get all those decades to prey on children and we have shut people out of the court system so they can’t identify who those predators are,” Hamilton said. “So unless we push back the SOL, it just is not possible to get the predators before they get that next victim.”
Hamilton, a nationally recognized advocate for children, represents a 2005 Solebury School graduate who alleges she was sexually abused by a former faculty member during her senior year.
“We’re seeing institution after institution being named. We’re seeing victims coming forward,” Hamilton said. “We have an epidemic and a cover-up and the trick is how do you get adults to protect children rather than just protecting their own interests.”
Hamilton believes that extending the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims is critical, since many struggle into adulthood about whether to disclose abuse, citing fear, shame or embarrassment. They are reactions that institutions and pedophiles count on to delay action and protect reputations, but they also allow the abuse to continue in secret, she said.
In states where the statute of limitations has been extended for sex abuse cases, such as Massachusetts, more individuals are coming forward, she said.
The bill’s opponents include the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania. Critics contend it would expose public schools — and taxpayers — to potentially expensive lawsuits and settlement awards.
The bill is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee headed by Montgomery County Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12, the author of two earlier laws that amended the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims in 1985 and 2002.
Greenleaf said his office is gathering information about how the proposed changes compare with statutes of limitations in other states. He plans to hold a committee hearing on the bill sometime in June, and afterward the committee could vote to move it to the Senate floor.
“We want to be fair about this, but the facts are I don’t think anybody disputes what the facts are,” Greenleaf added.
Fairness is all that Trickett wants.
She was a 14-year-old freshman floundering in Algebra 1 when Robert Shaw, a founder of the school in Solebury, offered to tutor her, she said. Soon the two were having sex, which continued through her senior year, she said.
“It was such a mythology he gave me. I was a young girl very much in need,” she said. “I thought I was being saved. I was so taken in by him. It took me a long time to understand what happened.”
It wasn’t until she was 60 years old that Trickett successfully started to deal with her childhood abuse in therapy, she said. The breakthrough has led her on a near two-decade quest for validation.
Along her journey, she confronted her former headmaster, who was 90 at the time, with her allegations, which she said he didn’t deny. She hired a lawyer and confronted school officials and turned down their offer to pay for her continued therapy and a promise to raise money to cover the counseling for other alleged abuse victims.
Trickett said she continued pursuing school officials with her abuse allegations, even writing to the alumni magazine. In 2012, she received a letter from Tom Wilschutz, the school’s headmaster since 2008, asking if he could come to Maine to meet with her, she said. She agreed and the subsequent meeting ended with Wilschutz apologizing to Trickett for what happened to her decades earlier, she said.
“He spoke with warmth and respect,” she said, adding, “his main responsibility, however, of course, is to protect the school.”
In a second meeting in 2013, Trickett said that Wilschutz showed her a letter he wrote disclosing the allegations of past sexual abuse of students by former school faculty and apologizing to victims. He also told Trickett that he had a portrait of Shaw removed from the school dining hall, eliminated a student award in his name, and no longer allows donations in Shaw’s name, she said.
In July 2014, Wilschutz released the letter to the community, posting it on the school’s website and mailing it to alumni. In a subsequent letter, Wilschutz revealed the abuse allegations involving school founder Shaw, but did not disclose the name of his alleged child victim. He also outlined the steps to remove Shaw’s legacy from the school.
Trickett said that she considers the headmaster’s efforts as validation to her claims.
“I was grateful for those steps, but I didn’t want to let him off the hook altogether,” she said. “I’m still pursuing this (by telling her story) because there are a lot of people who need to be honored.”
They include Hamilton’s client, a 28-year-old former Solebury day student who alleges she was sexually abused by a former faculty member during her senior year in 2005. The women asked that she not be identified because, in part, she has not told most friends and family about the alleged abuse.
In a telephone interview this week, the woman said the inappropriate conduct was a poorly kept secret on campus and the surrounding community that haunted her then, and now. The school’s headmaster at the time confronted her about the rumors, but she denied it. The faculty member remained at the school until he was let go for an unrelated reason and never criminally charged.
After she learned that the school and county prosecutors were looking into the allegations of sexual abuse on the campus, the woman said, she contacted the DA’s office seeking more details. She was unsure if she wanted to disclose her alleged abuse at that time, but wanted to know more about her options, she added.
The woman eventually was directed to Wilschutz, from whom she learned that six other people had given him her name as a possible abuse victim, she said.
“It’s taken me a very long time to talk about this. It’s something I didn’t emotionally deal with for a long time,” the woman said. “It was a very dark time in my life. Even now, 10 years later, I’m still mortified, still embarrassed by it and ashamed by it.”
In an email request seeking comment on the woman’s claims, Wilschutz said he has had conversations with a “number” of former students who have come forward, but declined to identify any specific individual.
The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office acknowledged the investigation into the sexual abuse allegations at the 91-year-old private middle and high school started nearly two years ago, when claims of abuse surfaced.
While attorneys, court employees and jurors, by law, are prohibited from revealing the existence of a grand jury or of any of its proceedings, witnesses, like Trickett, are not.
Assistant District Attorney Monica Furber, who is overseeing the investigation, Solebury Police Detective Cpl. Jonathan Koretzky, who inherited the case from former Detective Roy Ferrari after he was convicted of unrelated theft charges, and Wilschutz all declined comment on the grand jury.
Koretzky did confirm that no open police investigations are underway outside of the 2014 investigation.
Wilschutz said the school continues to cooperate fully with the district attorney’s office. He added that staff are “well trained” to prevent, identify and report abuse, all employees undergo full background checks at time of of hire and follow up checks.
“We continue to make every effort to have policies, procedures and training in place to prevent any harm to our students and we have a ‘zero tolerance’ practice should something occur,” he added.