BOSTON (WHDH) - A legal loophole in the State of Massachusetts prevents prosecutors from going after teachers, coaches, and other adults in positions of authority who sexually prey on teenagers in their care.
Survivors, like Liz O’Neil, say it happens more than you may realize.
“Predators like the man who abused me hide in plain sight,” O’Neil said, reading from a victim’s statement she submitted to the Massachusetts Legislature months ago.
It began when O’Neil was 16. She trusted a teacher who began offering her rides from home school. She says those rides evolved into gifts of money and jewelry, and eventually into a full-blown sexual relationship.
“I absolutely believe I was one hundred percent abused,” she told 7News. “I felt he completely took advantage of his position.”
Jeniece McClary echoes that sentiment. She came from a single parent home and was yearning for a father figure. In high school, she found that man in a leader at her church.
McClary wanted to please him, even when she says his intent turned sexual.
“He used God a lot. We’ll ask God to forgive us, we’ll pray if something doesn’t feel right,” she explained. “You start to believe everything they’re saying is true…he wouldn’t lead me in the wrong way, even if doesn’t feel right.”
Both women, now adults with children of their own, say it took years to come to terms with their abuse. But if they had tried to report it at the time, it’s unlikely the men would have been criminally charged.
“It happens far more often than people realize,” according to Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden.
The age of sexual consent in Massachusetts is 16, which means under the law the men who abused O’Neil and McClary could not be prosecuted. It’s a devastating legal loophole that advocates like Hayden want to close.
“So, if you have a teacher who in some way manipulates a 16-year-old student into having a sexual relationship, that adult can’t be charged?” asked 7’s Victoria Price.
“That’s correct,” Hayden said. A father of teenagers himself, he knows how impressionable kids at that age can be.
“Even though as a matter of law they could consent because they’re 16, you can’t possibly consent when your consent is overridden immediately by virtue of the fact the person who you’re engaging in that activity with is someone in a position of trust.”
At least 14 other states where the age of consent is under 18 have criminalized sex between teens and adults who hold positions of trust or authority over them.
Until Massachusetts does, survivors like O’Neil and McClary feel predators are being protected under the law.
“We all should realize that a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old does not have the tools nor the capacity to consent to a sexual relationship with their teacher,” O’Neil said. “It’s as simple as that.”
“There’s no consequence. If they can get away with it one, two, three times they have no reason to stop,” McClary added. “And they won’t until someone holds them accountable.”
State lawmakers have introduced legislation to close this gap in the law. However, the bill was tabled this session so it will have to be introduced again next year.
For more information about resources for victims or loved ones victimized by child abuse, sex abuse, and/or abuse of power visit the Children’s Advocacy Center of Suffolk County and the Suffolk DA’s office.
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