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Former student sues Portsmouth Abbey, claiming she was abused by a teacher and duped by the school

The Portsmouth Abbey School Alumni House in Portsmouth, R.I.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

In the spring, an archaeology professor in New Mexico received a strange note from an unknown e-mail address. The author was Michael Bowen Smith, a former teacher at Portsmouth Abbey, a prestigious Catholic boarding school in Rhode Island.

In the e-mail, which The Boston Globe obtained, Smith said he was writing to discuss a student he had taught in high school a few years earlier.

“[E.] and I were lovers,” he wrote to the professor, his former student’s mentor whom he had never met. “I was a married man with children and an award-winning career. She was a superstar academic yearning for some kind of freedom from her painfully constricted life. We were drawn together as rebel intellectuals . . .”

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Smith initiated sexual contact with E. when she was a 15-year-old sophomore at the Abbey, according to two new lawsuits and interviews with her. He was her 48-year-old teacher. They exchanged hundreds of e-mails, some of which the Globe reviewed, and met up across school grounds for the next two years. And as the letter illustrated, even after she broke things off in her freshman year of college, Smith pursued her into adulthood.

But E.’s troubles went far beyond her former teacher, according to the lawsuits, implicating leaders at the wealthy religious school that offered to help when she finally reported what happened. The lawsuits refer to her as “Jane Doe,” and the Globe is identifying her by the first letter of her name. Smith did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

E.’s struggle to get free of Smith and hold her former school accountable spanned five years and multiple states. Her story suggests that even after a recent reckoning in New England private schools over decades of sexual abuse at the hands of faculty, the challenges for a student in her position remain high. Portsmouth Abbey in 2017 apologized for sexual abuse that occurred more than 30 years earlier. But according to the lawsuits, that same year the school dodged legal responsibility for a much more recent allegation of abuse.

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Portsmouth Abbey did not respond to requests for comment or to a detailed list of questions.

The lawsuits claim that not only did the Abbey fail to protect E. as a student, but also that the school set her up to receive poor legal advice that benefited them. The school paid for E. to be represented by a law firm in New Mexico that never told her the statute of limitations to bring action against her former boarding school would soon expire. School administrators “wanted to keep the potential scandal contained, and commenced to do so by ‘steering’ Plaintiff to use the School’s outside consultant to ‘help’ her out of this predicament,” the Rhode Island lawsuit says.

“I trusted the school and the people they were connecting me with wanted to help me,” said E., who is now 24 and in graduate school, in an interview. “I wanted to be able to move on with my life.”

A suit against Portsmouth Abbey and Smith was filed last week in federal court in Rhode Island, and a suit against Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie, the law firm that represented E., was filed in New Mexico state court. The law firm strongly disputed the allegations, calling them inaccurate and one-sided in a statement to the Globe.

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E. arrived at the Abbey as a bright and shy scholarship student in the fall of 2010. She was 13 when she started ninth grade, thrilled at the prospect of a high school so much like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

During her sophomore year, she grew close to Smith, who taught humanities. They had wide-ranging intellectual conversations that increasingly became personal, and she felt he treated her as an equal, she said in an interview.

“Sort of filling a void and giving me some of the praise and support that I was used to getting at home,” E. said. At the end of the year, Smith invited her to his campus apartment, where, she said, he took her to a bedroom, kissed her, and initiated sexual acts. She was 15, below the age of consent in Rhode Island.

Earlier in the year, E.’s mother had become concerned that Smith was crossing boundaries, according to the Rhode Island lawsuit. E. said her mother called a dorm “house parent” to discuss her concerns and that the house parent later mentioned the call to E. but did not do anything else.

When E. returned to campus for her junior year, she and Smith continued to meet up and his acts of sexual abuse “intensified and became more frequent,” according to the lawsuit. She told a classmate at the time that she was sexually involved with Smith, which the classmate, Lily Mercer-Paiva, confirmed in an interview with the Globe.

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Throughout the next two years, Smith and E. exchanged hundreds of e-mails, written under aliases. The Globe reviewed some, which were sexually explicit.

The Abbey is a small school, with about 350 students, and soon the strange closeness of Smith and E. was the subject of widespread rumors, according to E. and Mercer-Paiva. Teacher and student could often be seen immersed in private conversations around campus, and multiple classmates, including the son of a faculty member, asked Mercer-Paiva about the nature of therelationship. At one point, Smith and E. emerged from a wooded area and ran into the entire lacrosse team, E. recalled.

But faculty and staff didn’t look into the rumors, the lawsuit says.

“There wasn’t a lot of desire to follow up,” E. said. “People didn’t want to deal with it.”

Once she graduated in 2014 and started college, E. told Smith she no longer wanted to be in touch. She was getting older and her new friends gently suggested that perhaps the situation with her former teacher hadn’t been the love story she thought.

As she processed what had happened, she had trouble sleeping and her academic work suffered. In the spring of 2015, she dropped out, returned home, and told her parents about Smith.

“It was like I never realized that I was as vulnerable as I was. Or that I could be manipulated so easily,” she said. “So admitting that to myself was part of the challenge.”

According to e-mails shared with the Globe, E.’s mother contacted the Abbey, and the school quickly suspended Smith. The school told Smith it planned to investigate the inappropriate relationship that was “alleged to have been sexual in nature.” Later that day, Smith resigned.

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It’s not clear who reported the situation to local police. But E. said the police reached out to her in 2015 and she spoke to them briefly. She didn’t want to get involved in a criminal case and did not tell them she had sexual contact with Smith. The Portsmouth Police Department rejected a public records request from the Globe for an incident report on privacy grounds.

The Abbey appeared to consider the issue resolved. In a 2016 letter to the school community, the Abbey said an independent law firm had reviewed a case involving “an inappropriate relationship between a faculty member and a student. The matter was reported at the time to law enforcement, and the teacher was suspended, quickly resigned, and excluded from campus. No new information on this incident was revealed in the course of this review.”

E. said she spoke briefly with the headmaster of the Abbey in 2015 to confirm that she and Smith had written e-mails under aliases. She said she was not contacted during the subsequent independent investigation of sexual abuse on campus.

And for her, the matter was far from over. Smith continued to hound her, sending pleading e-mails to her and others, which the Globe reviewed, mailing cards and money, and threatening to send roses by way of her university department.

When Mercer-Paiva told him to stop contacting her friend, referring to Smith as a predator, he objected.

“Hold on. Predator?! Is that how [E.] describes me after pursuing a relationship with me, begging me to continue with her each time I urged us to quit, and then parting in Jan 2015 as loving friends?” he wrote. He often described him and E. falling in love “under impossible circumstances” and wrote that because she would not speak to him, he feared “for her spiritual health.”

E. blocked his e-mail address; when he wrote from new ones, she blocked those, too.

“It was enormously stressful and painful, as I was trying to process what had happened, and slowly coming to the realization that this wasn’t my fault. And I wasn’t just some kind of freak,” she said.

And so, once again in 2017, E. reached out to her former boarding school for help.

The Abbey connected her with Kathleen McChesney, a crisis consultant and former FBI official who had led efforts within the Catholic Church to prevent child sexual abuse after the 2002 scandal.

McChesney declined to comment, saying in a statement that it would be unethical to confirm the names of her clients or discuss her work with them.

According to e-mails from the time, McChesney helped E. deliver a strongly worded letter to Smith telling him not to contact her. She also connected E. to Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie, telling the law firm that her client needed help with “a small matter, i.e., assisting her in obtaining a restraining order.” McChesney was paid by the Abbey, the lawsuit said.

The law firm often represented the Catholic Church, and had a law partner in charge of defending “religious institutions,” including sexual abuse claims against the church, the lawsuit said. The Abbey pledged to pay E.’s legal bills, according to e-mails the Globe obtained.

The lawsuit says the firm failed to tell E. that she was quickly approaching the statute of limitations, losing the chance to hold her former school responsible. They instead focused on getting a restraining order and did not tell E. of her other legal options.

Rhode Island passed a law in 2019 extending the statute of limitations for civil cases against individual abusers. But partly because of strong lobbying by the Catholic Church, the law is only retroactive for perpetrators and not negligent institutions, according to Timothy Conlon, a Rhode Island attorney acting as local counsel for E. on the case. (Her current case against the school could be thrown out on those grounds).

“What was in it for the school was they basically dodged a very, very significant lawsuit,” said Dave Ring, E.’s primary attorney who is based in Los Angeles.

Professors of legal ethics consulted by the Globe said that while it isn’t uncommon for third parties to pay legal bills, failing to advise a client about an upcoming statute of limitations was problematic.

“If the advice is so basic that a first-year law student would have known that it should have been disclosed to the client, then a reasonable fact finder might infer that the law firm was conflicted,” said Ronald Sullivan, a professor of legal ethics at Harvard Law School. “Statute of limitations are one of the first things that lawyers tend to look at.”

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie strongly disputed the allegations.

“The written scope of our engagement was narrow, was limited to the protective order issue against Smith, did not involve other parties, and in any event did not and could not have included advice about Rhode Island law,” Kenneth Van Winkle Jr., managing partner of the firm, wrote in a statement to the Globe. “The school is not and has never been a firm client, and [E.’s] arrangement to have the school reimburse her for our fees was made by her or on her behalf before we were contacted and without our involvement.”

The firm said in its statement that E. did not provide the documents necessary to pursue a restraining order and in May 2017, directed the firm in writing not to pursue Smith further. They closed her case about a month after she turned 21, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe. She did not obtain a restraining order.

Now, three years later, Smith continues to contact E. In the spring, he wrote to her current and former professors, and sent Mercer-Paiva explicit e-mails E. had written to him as a teenager. At one point he sent E. a Starbucks gift card and then tracked where it was spent, according to Facebook messages he sent to Mercer-Paiva. (E. says she gave the gift card away.) E. has become increasingly worried about what he might do next.

“The degree of information that he seems to have access to somehow about my life, despite my efforts to try and remain as private as possible, is increasing, to a kind of disturbing and frightening level,” she said recently.

On Thanksgiving, a few days before her lawyer filed suit against the Abbey and her former teacher, Smith wrote once again, according to an e-mail obtained by the Globe.

“Let’s ennoble our holiday by reaching out and making peace,” he wrote. “Kindness is Karma Repair.”