Alumni suing St. Paul’s denounce school as ‘a haven for sexual predators’

  • St. Paul's School in Concord on Monday, May 22, 2017. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 5/3/2018 8:48:35 AM

George Chester Irons says he felt sick for approximately 44 years, and until September 2014 he could not figure out why.

Even after visiting over 20 medical specialists, including doctors of hematology, neurology, psychology and psychiatry, he could not identify the root cause of his illness.

“I did not understand that I’d been sexually abused and repeatedly raped that night in New York City,” Irons said of a winter night during his sophomore year at St. Paul’s School.

A school administrator had escorted him to a brothel in the big city and forced him to engage in sex acts with prostitutes. He’d had no prior sexual experience.

Several years earlier, Keith “Biff” Mithoefer had left the comfort of his rural hometown to enroll at the all-boys boarding school in New Hampshire’s capital. Away from family and friends, Mithoefer grew homesick. A faculty member who oversaw the school’s shooting club, which Mithoefer participated in, took note.

Under the guise of providing comfort, the adviser saw Mithoefer as a target for sexual abuse. Three other faculty members did too.

“This was an atmosphere of predators and pedophiles,” Mithoefer told the Monitor. “I thought that might have changed, but recent cases tell us otherwise.”

Irons, who graduated in 1976, is a former president of the school’s alumni association and previously served on the board of trustees. Mithoefer attended St. Paul’s between 1966 and 1970. Irons and Mithoefer have never met, but they share a bond that runs much deeper: both were sexually assaulted as children and suffer from the everlasting consequences of that abuse.

Together, they are suing St. Paul’s for negligence and seeking unspecified compensatory damages. In the 22-page lawsuit filed Tuesday in Merrimack County Superior Court, they allege that the school was “a haven for sexual predators,” and that adults failed to protect children entrusted with their care.

Civil action

Irons and Mithoefer have brought 10 civil claims against St. Paul’s including negligent hiring; retention and supervision of faculty/staff; negligent infliction of emotional distress; and vicarious liability. Additionally, Irons’s wife, Barbara Irons, alleges in the lawsuit that as a result of the harm caused to her husband, she suffered loss of his “aid, assistance, comfort, society, companionship, affection, and conjugal relation.”

St. Paul’s had long known of the sexual abuse of students in the care of their teachers and advisers and yet chose to remain silent for decades, further augmenting the psychological harm that alumni like Irons and Mithoefer suffered, the lawsuit says.

“The Plaintiffs are in their fifties and sixties and had the School reported the abuse earlier, they would have either sought mental health assistance or become aware of the connection between their own abuse and their psychological harm earlier,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Barnes writes.

Irons and Mithoefer told the Monitor they jointly filed their lawsuit against St. Paul’s because the school left them with no other options. Settling outside of court wasn’t on the table.

Board of Trustees President Archibald Cox Jr. wrote a letter to the St. Paul’s community late Wednesday night notifying alumni, parents and current students of the new lawsuit. He apologized to Irons and Mithoefer, while calling their stories “terrible.”

“We are truly sorry for the pain they experienced and for any failure of the School to protect them,” Cox said.

He continued, “We are as committed as ever to facing squarely the worst elements of our past. We hope this will help those who were harmed and improve St. Paul’s School today and into the future.”

History of abuse

The lawsuit alleges that St. Paul’s breached its fiduciary duty by rehiring and continuing to employ Coolidge Mead Chapin, who had a long-standing history of taking students off campus without their parents’ permission. That included to brothels in New York City where students were sexually abused as Chapin directed them on how to engage in sexual acts with prostitutes whom he paid, the lawsuit says.

Chapin, an alumnus employed at the school for more than four decades, cultivated personal relationships with students who came from a place of wealth and influence. He was known by students as the “toad,” and oversaw “The Tea and Toast Group” that included students, primarily athletes, known as “toadies,” the complaint notes.

An investigation commissioned by St. Paul’s in 2016 substantiated accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse by Chapin and more than a dozen other faculty and staff, dating back to 1948. The school released an initial report on faculty abuse in May 2017, which was followed by an addendum in November that included accounts from an additional 15 victims and examined abuse as early as 2009.

Not named in either report is late Massachusetts congressman Gerry Studds, who Mithoefer said sexually assaulted him on a deserted road after the two had gone to dinner in Concord. The lawsuit alleges that Mithoefer and Studds were discussing politics and civil rights when Studds placed his hands on the boy’s crotch and propositioned him.

“Mithoefer felt betrayed, terrified, and trapped, and asked to go home,” according to the complaint.

Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress, was censured in 1983 for sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old congressional page a decade earlier. He taught at St. Paul’s from 1965-69.

In interviews Thursday, Irons and Mithoefer said that for too long St. Paul’s has normalized sexual abuse by covering it up in an attempt to protect the financial welfare of the institution and those at its head. Now, they say, they’re standing up to demand change.

“This is not a legal issue; this is a moral and ethical issue,” Mithoefer said. “These men have to start telling the truth. They’re hiding behind their lawyers to protect their finances – and that’s it.”

Irons said he wants other victims and survivors to know they are not alone and that support is available to them.

“Students were sexually abused and, in many cases, blamed and made to feel complicit and threatened,” he said. “There has been significant and lasting damage done to too many children who are now adults living with the consequences.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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