The Bermuda Government does not believe there is a “gap in the law” that allows adults in positions of trust or authority to sexually exploit children aged over 16.
Christine DaCosta, who was targeted by a teacher at Mount Saint Agnes Academy when she was 17, said there should be legislative change to close a loophole that allowed teachers, sports coaches and others who work with young people to groom and exploit children over the age of consent.
She was backed by the child sexual abuse prevention charity Scars.
The Criminal Code makes it an offence for “a person who, being in a position of trust or authority towards a young person” sexually exploited them.
The law defines a young person as someone under 16.
Ms DaCosta said: “The laws around sexual exploitation at the hands of a schoolteacher do not safeguard you unless you are under the age of 16.”
Debi Ray-Rivers, the executive director of Scars, said: “We agree that there should be further legislative reform to the Criminal Code that would make it an offence for persons in positions of trust — that is, coaches, teachers, clergy, parents, etc — to sexually abuse any person of school-leaving age, which could also include 18 or 19-year-olds.”
She added: “In other words, you could still be in school until the age of 19. Position of trust assumes unequal relationship and the student or child or athlete is susceptible to the influence of the person in trust.”
Ms DaCosta said she was told by police in 1999 that her history teacher, Robert DiGiacomo, then 44, had not committed a criminal offence by having sex with her because she was aged over 16 and it was consensual.
She added: “I was considered an adult who was able to make a fully rational decision on this.
“The adolescent brain does not stop developing until the age of 25. It’s time for a paradigm and mental shift in our society.”
A Ministry of Legal Affairs spokeswoman said it could not comment on Ms DaCosta’s case, but that it was a “misconception” to say the law enabled those in positions of trust or authority to have sex with children aged over 16 without committing a criminal offence.
The spokeswoman added: “Whilst a person in a position of trust or authority who has sex with a girl aged 16 or 17 could not commit the offence of sexual exploitation, they would be liable to a conviction for the offence of sexual assault.”
She added: “The circumstances described do not identify a gap in the law.
“Whilst there is no separate offence, there are offences which cover non-consensual sexual activity, including full intercourse and touching for a sexual purpose, where the victim is over 16 years of age and the offender is in a position of trust.”
The Centre Against Abuse says sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behaviour that happened without consent.
Ms DaCosta’s call for a change in the law is specifically in relation to grooming which leads to consensual sex.
The ministry spokeswoman did not respond to a question on whether an offence of sexual assault would apply in cases where sex between a teacher and a student over 16 was consensual.
Kathy Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, tabled a string of legislative changes in the Senate in July, designed to protect children from sexual predators, with many of them due to come into force on November 1.
The measures approved by Parliament included defining “child” in the Criminal Code as a person under 18 and compelled the courts to impose more severe penalties where a sexual offence was committed by someone who had abused their authority.
The ministry spokeswoman said such penalties would be applicable to those convicted of sexual assault.
A report by Bermuda’s Inter-Agency Committee for Children and Families in 2014 highlighted the early sexual initiation and high proportion of sexually active teenagers on the island, including cases where teenage girls were in “relationships” with older men and power was unequally distributed.
The report said: “Further anecdotal evidence suggests that Bermuda may not necessarily take a hard line towards older men who engage in sexual relations with young girls.”
It added that strengthening the protection for young girls to reduce their level of exposure to sexual abuse was critical.