Dismissal of charges against former Milton Academy teacher highlights issues around years-old sex abuse claims
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The prosecutor and victim witness advocate called Jamie Forbes over the Christmas holidays as he was traveling through Asia with his family and delivered some wrenching news.
Six months earlier in June 2018, Reynold J. Buono, a former Milton Academy teacher, had been returned to the United States from Thailand to face charges that he raped Forbes when he was 15 years old, in 1981 and 1982.
Lawyers for Buono, 73, fought back, seeking to dismiss the indictments. On Dec. 26, Superior Court Judge Thomas A. Connors ruled in their favor, saying the evidence isn’t enough to prosecute a child sex abuse case that falls outside the 27-year statute of limitations.
The hole in the case, according to Connors? Prosecutors don’t have independent evidence to support Forbes’s account of being sexually assaulted by Buono at an on-campus apartment during his freshman year. Such corroboration is required, Connors wrote, in cases brought 27 years after the alleged offense occurred.
“I was surprised and devastated and scared that after all this he might walk away a free man,” Forbes, 52, said last month in an interview at his home in Portsmouth, N.H. “I hope that there will be an opportunity for a jury to decide.”
The office of Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, which is prosecuting Buono, has asked Connors to reconsider and wants the state Appeals Court to weigh in.
But in an era where notorious child molesters like Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar have been sent to prison for crimes that occurred years before they were reported to police, Buono’s case has laid bare the thorny legal issues, high stakes, and emotions synonymous with prosecuting child sex crimes once the victims enter adulthood.
An investigation by a consultant hired by Milton Academy found Buono molested 18 students during his 14-year tenure, but he only faces criminal charges for alleged attacks on Forbes.
If the case unravels, it wouldn’t be because Forbes kept his story secret, but because his story didn’t reach police until decades later. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in Norfolk Superior Court.
“The statute of limitations is a major impediment in bringing justice to people who have been hurt and the survivor experience is pretty consistent in terms of the reporting. Very few survivors want to report,” Forbes said. “If they do ultimately decide to tell someone, that shouldn’t be limited by time.”
Forbes, a descendant of 19th-century railroad magnate John Murray Forbes, grew up in Milton and enrolled in the elite private school in the fifth grade. Buono joined the faculty in 1973, teaching English and theater. He was known for teaching Shakespeare and his popularity with students.
In 1981, Forbes, then 14, went biking through Italy on a trip chaperoned by Buono.
Prosecutors allege Buono sexually assaulted Forbes in Venice after a night of drinking. The next day, Forbes told two friends what happened.
“I remember that he was just terrified to say anything,” said Doug Cabot, one of the people Forbes told. “We were sitting in a stone windowsill in Venice and he told us what had happened.”
Cabot, 52, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Forbes and also attended Milton Academy, said he confronted Buono about the encounter.
Prosecutors describe Forbes confiding in friends and Cabot confronting Buono in court papers, but the alleged crime isn’t covered by the indictment because it occurred in Italy, beyond the reach of US prosecutors.
Buono is accused of sexually assaulting Forbes during tutoring sessions at Buono’s on-campus apartment between Sept. 1, 1981 and July 1, 1982, records show. He has pleaded not guilty to three counts of rape of a child and three counts of rape of a child with force.
The abused ended, prosecutors said, after Cabot told his mother about what happened between Buono and Forbes in Venice. Forbes’s mother was later informed as was Milton Academy, which removed Buono as Forbes’s academic adviser but let him keep his job, prosecutors said.
Buono is on house arrest after posting $50,000 bail and being placed on a GPS tracking device.
Inga Bernstein, Buono’s lawyer, said Connors’s decision should stand.
“We think he got it right,” she said.
In court papers, prosecutors argued they don’t need independent evidence to corroborate Forbes’s story because they say the case falls within the statute of limitations. The approximately 30 years that Buono lived outside Massachusetts doesn’t count toward the time cap, prosecutors said.
In her response filed Friday, Bernstein wrote the requirement for independent corroboration can’t be set aside because Buono left the state.
“Such an action would require the Court to usurp the role of the Legislature and re-write the plain language of the statute. The invitation to do this should be soundly rejected,” she wrote.
Milton Academy fired Buono in 1987 after he admitted to sexually assaulting a different student and moved to Southeast Asia shortly thereafter, court papers said.
After the Globe Spotlight Team published a report in May 2016 about sexual misconduct in private schools, Todd B. Bland, Milton Academy’s head of school, invited people to contact him with concerns about sex abuse.
Cabot said he called Forbes and asked if he’d considered telling his story.
After reflection, Forbes said he called the school and met with Bland in his office for about two hours.
“One of the first things he did was apologize to me for the pain that I had endured,” Forbes said.
In April 2017, Forbes met with police and Buono was indicted five months later, court records show. Buono appeared for the first time in a US courtroom on June 27, 2018.
Forbes said he was at a family gathering on Cape Cod when he got word that Buono was under arrest. In a cruel twist, news that the indictments had been dismissed reached Forbes while he was traveling in Thailand, the country where Buono had been arrested. Forbes was there to visit his 18-year-old daughter, who is traveling during a gap year.
“It was not lost on me,” Forbes said.
In an e-mail, Forbes’s wife, Alison, said she wished it would be easier for survivors to tell their stories.
“It’s so challenging for them to feel it will be worth the emotional strain and risk that they will not be successful,” she said. “It’s never too late to speak out or to heal. As a culture, we have a long way to go to prevent abuse.”
Forbes’s experience in reporting his abuse persuaded him to pursue a new project, Hadley Rock Advisors which helps schools navigate sexual misconduct investigations and support survivors. Milton Academy was his first client, said Forbes, who also advises people and companies on philanthropy through a separate business.
In a statement, Bland said Forbes has helped support former students who were sexually abused by Buono.
“Jamie’s perspective is invaluable to our continuing efforts to maintain a victim-centered approach to this work,” Bland said.
Forbes’s mother, who worked at Milton Academy for about 10 years, said she’s proud of what her son has done to protect children from the kind of abuse he endured.
“Jamie has found a personal strength and power that I haven’t seen since he was abused,” Tally Forbes said in an e-mail.
Forbes said he plans to press ahead, assisting prosecutors however he can and continuing his work with Hadley Rock, which has led to collaborations with more than a dozen schools.
The venture is named for a rock submerged at the end of a treacherous waterway off Falmouth where Forbes has sailed and fished his entire life.
When you reach that spot, Forbes said, you’re in safe waters.