‘The scars are still deep’
A woman groomed by her teacher for sex while she was a teenage schoolgirl has called for a change to the law to protect 16 and 17-year-old girls from predators.
Christine DaCosta, 38, said adults who worked with children could target girls by grooming them before they reached the age of consent, but avoid prosecution by not having sex with them until they reached the age of 16.
Ms DaCosta told The Royal Gazette: “It was and still is not against the law for a teacher to engage in a relationship with a student in the school system that is 16, 17 or 18.
“For the safety of our children, the law must change.”
She was backed by the Most Reverend Wes Spiewak, the Catholic Bishop of Hamilton, and child sexual abuse prevention charity Saving Children and Revealing Secrets, which said the island's Criminal Code needed to be amended to protect anyone still at school from sexual exploitation.
Ms DaCosta said: “I don't want to see another generation of children vulnerable to this kind of abuse. My children and their generation deserve more. It's time for us to start safeguarding the most important members of our society.”
Debi Ray-Rivers, the executive director of Scars, said: “Scars would welcome and support such an amendment.”
Bishop Spiewak said: “Having the law being changed and bringing the age of minority up to 18: well, this case and many other cases, they show us it would be a good thing to do. That would actually help the society to have a better protection of one of the most vulnerable members of society ... minors.”
Ms DaCosta had just turned 17 in 1998 when Mount Saint Agnes Academy history teacher and family friend Robert DiGiacomo, then aged 44, told her he was in love with her and persuaded her to have sexual contact with him on several occasions and sex on one occasion.
The married father of three, now 65, had known Ms DaCosta since she was a small child, as she was best friends with his daughter.
He detailed his feelings for her in a string of letters, sent between 1998 and 1999, which Ms DaCosta showed to The Royal Gazette.
In one, he wrote: “If your love for me is as strong as mine for you, we have a bond that was made to last and was sanctioned in heaven.”
In another, Mr DiGiacomo said: “Your love for me is so great ... I want you to be my wife, my lover, my joy and reason to live. I want to give you a child that we would raise.”
A further letter included the lines: “I dedicate myself to you. Your heart, your soul and finally your body. I love you for your love and not just a physical thing — but the physical is the culmination of that true love.”
Another former pupil told The Royal Gazette that Mr DiGiacomo forcibly kissed her at an MSA graduation party in Point Shares in 1981, when she was 17.
The woman, referred to as Ms X to protect her identity, said he later visited her home with a gift of jewellery and talked about intimate details of his marriage.
The then schoolgirl asked her father to intervene as she was so uncomfortable.
Ms X said her father was asked some years later by MSA for information on what had happened and he provided details to the school authorities.
Mr DiGiacomo was forced to resign from MSA in January 1999, according to a letter from the school to Ms DaCosta, “when it became known that he had engaged in inappropriate behaviour” with her.
The school said it “did not have knowledge of Robert DiGiacomo's propensity to engage in inappropriate behaviour before his misconduct” with her.
Paul Fortuna, the chairman of the school's board of governors, wrote: “He was forbidden from returning to the MSA campus and, in addition, the school principal at the time took all necessary safeguarding steps by reporting the matter to [the Department of Child and] Family Services and writing to stakeholders to advise that Robert DiGiacomo should not be allowed to take a teaching or coaching role in the future.”
But the school did not fully investigate the matter at the time [see separate story].
It told The Royal Gazette this month that a “thorough investigation” launched at Ms DaCosta's request last year revealed that “the teacher in question tendered his resignation when the subject of the complaint was revealed to senior members of teaching staff. He was escorted from MSA premises and never returned to the school campus”.
Ms DaCosta said police told her and her parents that no crime had been committed by the teacher, now a professional development coach who calls himself “Bermuda Bob”, because she was over the age of consent.
She added: “I recall sitting in the police reporting office and having officers tell me that it was his word against mine.
“That, despite the fact that this man, my teacher, had sex with me, that because I was 17, that basically it is not against the law.
“The fact that he was in a position of power was irrelevant.
“The law states that unless he held me under physical duress, unless I fought back, that this is not against the law because the age of consent is 16.
“The idea of him grooming me and being in a position of power would not hold up.”
The Criminal Code makes it an offence for a person in a position of trust or authority to sexually exploit a young person, and those convicted of the crime face a prison term of between five and 25 years.
A young person is defined as aged under 16.
But in the United Kingdom it is illegal for a person over 18 in a specified “position of trust” to have any sexual contact with a person under the age of 18, even if the relationship is consensual.
Ms DaCosta said the Criminal Code should be changed to raise the age to 18.
She added: “There is a huge loophole in the law which leaves so many of our children in the school system and on sporting bodies open to this kind of calculated abuse.
“Because of the way the law is written, grooming becomes irrelevant and therefore leaves a whole group of individuals exposed to exploitation because the law does not protect them.
“A 16-year-old does not have the wisdom to begin to comprehend the true nature of undue influence.”
Ms DaCosta added: “The negative implications of this abuse ultimately manifest themselves in many areas of mental illness in our society.”
She said she had suffered from depression and bulimia, turned to alcohol and self-harm, and attempted suicide, after she graduated from MSA.
Ms DaCosta explained: “I had convinced myself that I played a huge part in this issue.
“I blamed myself, put it in a box and tried to move on with my life. Eventually, that box started to combust and it tainted every aspect of my life by spilling its negative contents deep within each crevice of my being.”
Ms DaCosta suggested the law gave teenage girls less protection than boys because the Criminal Code makes it illegal to have anal sex or attempt to have anal sex unless both parties are over 18.
She said that meant a teacher could have consensual vaginal sex with a 16-year-old girl pupil without breaking the law, but a teacher who had consensual anal sex with a 16-year-old pupil of either sex would be guilty of an offence and could face between five and 20 years in jail.
Both situations would be illegal in the UK under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000.
Mr DiGiacomo declined to comment in a letter from his lawyer, Cristen Suess.
But Ms Suess said the allegations were “completely unfounded and baseless”.
The lawyer wrote: “These allegations not only date back to some 22 years ago, but were also never investigated or substantiated.
“Notwithstanding the severe damage to his reputation, our client has chosen to put these matters behind him in an effort to move on with his life.”
A Ministry of Legal Affairs spokeswoman said Ms DaCosta's assertion of a loophole in the law was a “misconception”.
She added that, although teachers and others in positions of trust could not be charged with sexual exploitation of schoolchildren aged over 16, they could be charged with sexual assault.
According to the Centre Against Abuse, sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behaviour that occurs without the consent of the recipient.
The ministry spokeswoman did not respond by press time to a question on whether an offence of sexual assault would apply if the sex between a teacher and a child over 16 was consensual.
A Bermuda Police Service spokesman said he could not comment on Ms DaCosta's case.
He said recent amendments to the law brought Bermuda into line with the international Lanzarote Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.
In most countries that have signed up to the convention, teachers and other educators commit a criminal offence if they engage in sexual activities with a pupil under 18.
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