January 8, 1997 in Nation/World

Girls Tell Court Of Teacher’s Sexual Abuse Students Testify In Trial Of Canfield Middle School Teacher

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Humiliated, red-faced and sometimes crying, five teenage girls took the stand in court Tuesday to testify against a teacher they had admired and confided in.

One after the other, they described how Paul Mather, a popular geography teacher at Canfield Middle School, hugged them tightly at school.

He sometimes pressed his body against theirs or rested his hands on their breasts, they said. Other times, the girls said, Mather hugged them and ran his hands down to their buttocks.

Mather, once voted “teacher of the year,” is charged with two counts of sex abuse for his behavior with two of the girls, age 13 and 14.

The girls said Tuesday that Mather’s popularity and their own fondness for him prevented them from coming forward at first.

“I didn’t want everybody to be mad at me and I didn’t want him to get in trouble,” said a 13-yearold former student.

Calling the charges “felony hugging,” defense attorney Tim Gresback on Tuesday painted the accusations as misunderstandings from teenagers dealing with their budding sexuality.

“Like most teachers at Canfield, he would hug his students. He hugged everyone,” Gresback told the jury during opening statements. “Paul does not come before you today to deny he ever touched his students. But he does deny he ever touched a student with a sexual purpose.”

Gresback argued that the girls know one another and blew the teacher’s well-intentioned affection out of proportion after hearing rumors about previous inappropriate behavior by Mather.

According to police reports, Mather had intercourse in 1989 with a 16-year-old Post Falls student. The case did not go to trial after the girl decided not to testify against Mather.

Although chief deputy prosecutor Lansing Haynes argued Tuesday that he should be allowed to present the details of that incident to the jury, Judge Gary Haman ordered that it would be too prejudicial.

Each of the girls told the jury that they had liked Mather very much. A baseball coach at Coeur d’Alene High School, he would talk to them about sports and they would confide in him about their troubles. One girl said she even told him she had been molested as a child.

“He was very nice, I liked him a lot,” said one 13-year-old girl, her tear-reddened eyes avoiding Mather, seated in front of her in court. “Everybody liked him.”

The girls said that Mather’s inappropriate behavior didn’t start until last spring semester. Although he had previously hugged several of them before, the hugs became more intense that semester.

“He’d move his hands down to my buttock area and would squeeze,” said one of the girls, now 15. The girl, who was a teacher’s aide for Mather, said she started wearing a backpack to ward off his hugs.

Another 15-year-old girl who had been Mather’s aide said the teacher pressed against her while hugging her from behind.

“Sometimes he would sway back and forth,” she said. “He’d say ‘I love you. You’re such a good kid.”’ Haynes provided each of the girls with a life-sized cardboard cutout of a girl. He had the teenagers draw on the cardboard where Mather allegedly touched them.

Meanwhile, Gresback attacked inconsistencies in the girls’ stories. He pointed out that one girl had told police Mather used his left hand to touch her, but later said it was his right. She also had changed the number of times and the manner in which Mather hugged her inappropriately.

Gresback pointed out that the girls seemed to decide Mather’s behavior was bad only after talking to one another.

As Gresback questioned one girl, insisting she had a crush on the older man, the teen broke into sobs denying the accusation. The judge called for an early lunch.

The girls said they never told Mather that his behavior made them uncomfortable. They said they were too embarrassed and unsure.

“I thought maybe I overreacted but I still felt uncomfortable,” said a 14-year-old girl.

Three of the girls had intended to talk to a counselor and ask her to let Mather know he was making them uncomfortable. But they said they didn’t want Mather to get in trouble.

And “I didn’t want any of the teachers to be mad at me because I knew some would,” one girl said.

But before they could talk to the counselor, the principal found out about their concerns. Mather has been placed on paid suspension pending the outcome of the trial.

Each count of sexual abuse of a child is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. The trial is scheduled to last through the week.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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