Photo illustration by Eric Johnson

Waiting for closure

Published 8:27am Tuesday, October 4, 2011

As an Austin man prepares for sentencing on sexual molestation charges, one alleged victim, now 28, is hoping all involved find closure.

When former Stewartville teacher Francis Skinness is sentenced Monday for second-degree sexual conduct, two former Austin residents will heave a sigh of relief.

Skinness, 65, an Austin resident, will be sentenced on a single charge. But court records and police reports show that children in Austin and Stewartville had complained about his behavior for more than 20 years before the 2009 incidents that led to his arrest at Stewartville’s Bonner Elementary.

Lauren Moe, who was a third-grader at Austin’s Banfield Elementary School where Skinness taught in 1992, is one of 16 girls who complained to authorities about Skinness over the years or who came forward after he was arrested.

It was reported to Austin police in 1992 that Skinness, who was then a long-term substitute in Moe’s classroom, had touched her inappropriately. When Moe and her mother, Lori Smith, read newspaper accounts of the charges Skinness is facing in Olmsted County, they were shocked by the similarities.

“It was like reading my daughter’s story all over again,” Smith said. “It made me sick.”

Although Austin police investigated Moe’s complaint in 1992, no charges were filed.

It is the Herald’s practice to not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse. However, Moe, who now lives in Wisconsin, asked that her name be attached to her comments in this story.

No charges in 1992

Skinness was suspected of sexually abusing at least two third-grade girls in his class at Bonner Elementary in Stewartville in 2009. An Olmsted County police report said one of the girls alleged that Skinness touched her chest under her shirt, put his lips on her ears, and sat her between his legs and pulled her so close that she could feel his genitals against her back.

Another girl reported a similar experience and said Skinness had touched her upper leg and hips and put his hand down the front of her shirt, the police report said.

Skinness has entered an Alford plea to a single charge, meaning he admits there is enough evidence to find him guilty but does not admit to committing the alleged crime.

During the investigation in Stewartville, students described what they called the “hot seat,” which allegedly sat in the front of Skinness’ classroom at Bonner. According to a police report, Skinness would sit on a 14-inch diameter stool with his legs apart and a student would sit between his legs on the stool with him. Boys in the class told police mostly girls sat in the “hot seat,” according to police reports.

“On the stool he always has his legs spread out really wide …. When they are sitting down he will push his body up close to them, and she can feel his private parts,” Olmsted County Sheriff’s Detective Lee Rossman wrote in a report based on information from one of the alleged victims.

Some of the girls told Rossman that Skinness would give them long hugs, which made them feel uncomfortable, according to a police report. Three girls from Skinness’ class at Bonner wrote him a note explaining their unease.

“Mr. Skinness, we am (sic) not comfortable with you having us stand in between your legs and stuff. I know you said that you were trying to stop but could you please try harder for us,” the note read, according to court documents.

According to police records, Smith said Skinness’ reported behavior toward the Stewartville girls mirrored what her daughter reportedly experienced in 1992.

In January 1993, the Austin School District filed a report with Mower County Human Services regarding Moe’s discomfort with Skinness.

“Lori (Smith) reported that Lauren (Moe) told her toward the end of October 1992, that Mr. Skinness would sit on a chair in front of the class. He would call on Lauren to come up and sit on the chair between his legs. He would hold onto her waist with his hands holding her close to his body,” the report said.

According to the report, Moe said, “No one in the family touches me like that.”

Smith said she brought her concerns to officials at Banfield Elementary in October 1992. When Olmsted County’s Detective Rossman spoke with Moe as part of his 2009 investigation, Moe told him she was removed from Skinness’ class and placed in another third-grade class. She said school officials told her mother she had a different comfort level than other children her age, according to a police report.

Moe said it wasn’t a comfort level issue.

“In my inner being, in my soul, it just wasn’t right,” Moe said. “My mom raised me in a Christian home and taught me right and wrong, and that feeling in me was, ‘I want this to stop.’”

A letter from Mower County Human Services to the Austin Police Department indicates Skinness was removed from the classroom and given other duties in November 1992. However, Smith and Moe recall that Skinness continued to teach. Austin Schools records show that Skinness, who was a contracted substitute teacher, worked 163 days in the 1992-1993 school year and 65 days in the 1993-1994 school year.

On Jan. 28, 1993, a detective from the Austin Police Department filed a report stating that Pat Oman, then the Mower County Attorney, had decided there was not enough evidence to make criminal charges. The report states no further action was taken.

Contacted by the Herald, Skinness declined to comment for this story.

Forgotten complaints

Detective Rossman’s investigation at Bonner Elementary in 2009 included interviews with each student in Skinness’ class. Along with the two girls who initially alleged that Skinness had touched them inappropriately, five others told Rossman they had at some point felt uncomfortable around the teacher.

The girls reported instances of Skinness allegedly pressing his genitals against their backs while they were sitting on the “hot seat” stool, according to the police report.

One girl told police that Skinness had been measuring her height and said she wasn’t standing up straight. The police report said Skinness allegedly pushed the girl against the wall with his body while facing her and pressed his genitals against her abdomen. The girl said one of Skinness’ hands was on her chest and the other was above her head, the police report said.

At least three former students and four other girls also came forward during the investigation, alleging similar encounters with Skinness. The alleged incidents took place between 1987 and 2009, according to the police report.

Three women, who are now in their 30s, told Detective Rossman they would shower together when they were about 7 or 8. All three, none of whom were students of Skinness, reported Skinness flinging open the shower curtain and taking photos of them at hotels on weekend trips, according to a police report. One woman told police that Skinness reportedly gave the girls piggyback rides when they were naked after showers, according to police records.

A report made to the Austin Police Department in 1987 alleged that Skinness had pushed a 13-year-old girl against the kitchen sink and pressed his mid-section into the front, lower part of her body. The girl also alleged that Skinness had previously tickled her excessively and pinched her backside.

“He would reach up underneath your butt cheeks and pinch you there,” Rossman wrote in the police report based on information from the alleged victim. “He would get close to your private area.”

Skinness told police in 1987 that the incidents were horseplay and were not meant for sexual gratification. After interviewing him, the reporting officer recommended no charges be pursued, according to the report.

When Rossman interviewed Skinness at Bonner Elementary in April 2009, Skinness said students never sit on his lap and that he doesn’t hug students. He told Rossman he would stand up from the “hot seat” if a student felt uncomfortable sitting with him.

Skinness also denied putting his hand in any of the girls’ shirts and said it was accidental if it did happen.

Achieving closure

Minnesota sentencing guidelines indicate that when Skinness is sentenced on Monday, he should receive three years of probation.

Smith and Moe said they hope the sentencing brings them closure.

“I feel like finally justice has been done, and he won’t be able to hurt any more little girls,” Moe said. “I have totally forgiven him and moved on and moved forward with my life.”

Despite having forgiven Skinness for the alleged past abuse, Smith and Moe believe he should have been charged many years ago.

“We could have stopped it in 1993,” Smith said. “I’m just glad that he’s been exposed.”