St. Paul’s School seeks atonement for past sexual abuse suffered by students

  • The Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul is seen at St. Paul's School in Concord on Monday, May 22, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • The Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul is seen on the campus of St. Paul’s School in Concord. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 5/1/2019 4:53:11 PM

A service to atone for the sexual abuse and misconduct suffered by St. Paul’s School students over decades has stirred feelings of confusion and anger for some victims and alumni, while others who helped plan the event are calling it an important step in a long-term healing process.

At the school’s Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul this Saturday, “A Service of Repentance toward Healing: Witness, Lament, and Apology for Abuse at St. Paul’s School” will include prayer, music, moments of silence and a homily delivered by alumna Valerie Webster, an Episcopal priest and childhood sexual assault survivor. The service will be led by Dean of Chapel Alice Courtright and Bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta Robert Wright, who has served on the school’s board of trustees since 2017. All members of the St. Paul’s community, past and present, can attend; however, the service is closed to the general public.

A subcommittee of the school’s Alumni Association, known as “Alumni Doorways,” conceived of the service months ago as one way to connect with former students harmed at St. Paul’s, with the goal of meeting them wherever they’re at in their healing journey, said Alisa Barnard, the association’s executive director and member of the Class of 1994.

But not everyone is on the same page about the service’s intent and its timing.

For alumni who disclosed sexual abuse committed by their teachers long ago and were ignored, they say the service is coming too little too late. They argue the school should not be asking for forgiveness from God but from the victims who should each have a chance to be heard and to confront their abusers.

For others, plans for Saturday’s service feel years premature and ill-conceived because they say the school is only beginning to confront its history as truths emerge from the shadows.

Still, many alumni believe the service is a visible and concrete step forward for a school long criticized for inaction and failing to acknowledge past abuses.

“I want to be clear that we do not in any way see this as a closing of the door or closing of the chapter,” Barnard said. “This is really important ongoing work, and we’re taking it one step at a time.”

‘Only the victims can pardon’

St. Paul’s officials recently acknowledged that the institution failed its former students by not adequately investigating reports of sexual abuse by faculty, including in 2000 when a group of 1970s alumni came forward with their stories demanding answers and accountability. Many of their stories have since come to light as part of an independent investigation commissioned by St. Paul’s more than a decade later.

The first Casner & Edwards report, released in May 2017, substantiated claims of sexual abuse against at least 13 former faculty members between 1948 and 1988. Since then, the Boston-based law firm has published two addendum reports that detail claims from a total of 67 victims against 20 named faculty and staff, spanning six decades. But many alumni maintain the reports highlight just a fraction of the abuse perpetrated at the Concord prep school.

While the ideas for Saturday’s service grew out of conversations with alumni whose focus has been on the issue of adult-student abuse, St. Paul’s officials said the program will acknowledge all forms of abuse to include harms perpetrated by students against their classmates.

For two St. Paul’s alumni who together filed a civil lawsuit against the school in 2018, the service is moving forward without their support. They said they see the event as more of a public relations stunt than a genuine effort by the school to reach victims.

“The school cannot pardon itself. Only the victims can pardon the school,” said 1976 graduate George Chester Irons, who is a former president of the school’s alumni association and previously served on the board of trustees. “Yet, the school does not wish to personally invite each victim nor allow each victim the chance to be heard, confront their abuser (the school), and read a victim statement. So, sadly this sort of ‘service’ of repentance is nothing more than a ‘service of self-pardon.’ ” The school continues to be unable to correct itself or even understand basic principals of honor, grace and trust.”

Irons and fellow sexual assault survivor Keith “Biff” Mithoefer, who have since settled their lawsuit against the school, said they were not personally invited to Saturday’s service and will not attend.

“When I first heard about the service, I felt almost physically sick,” Mithoefer said. “I thought it was despicable that they would hide behind the legal system and their lawyers, but now they’re hiding behind the church.

“I believe very strongly that no matter how splendid and fancy the chapel is, that Jesus isn’t going to buy this,” Mithoefer continued.

Following the release of the first supplement to the Casner & Edwards report in November 2017, a prayer service was held on campus with current students, faculty and staff, all of whom wrote their prayers on yellow stars that were then hung throughout the chapel. One of the photos shared on social media at the time showed a star that read, “I lament the fact that some victims felt that they didn’t and still don’t have a voice.” The service’s message of hope and repentance was also questioned by victims of prior adult abuse who were not invited to partake or speak with current students.

First step toward healing

The homilist for Saturday’s service is a member of the second class of girls to attend St. Paul’s in the early 1970s. As a student, Webster was molested by her English teacher while they were going over a poem in his home office with his wife and child in the next room. Upon reporting the abuse to the vice rector at the time, he responded by asking what she had done to make the teacher behave that way.

When Webster returned to St. Paul’s in the early 2000s in her role as a trustee for the Cook Scholarship Program, she shared her experience of being groped by a teacher, of speaking up and of not being heard.

Webster said she held onto the pain and shame of her abuse as a teenager but in time learned how to open herself up to healing through her work as an ordained Episcopal priest and an interfaith hospital chaplain. She hopes Saturday’s service will be a first step toward healing for those who were hurt individually and for the school as a community.

“Is Saturday’s service perfect? No. If I was a person in a place of anger and frustration with the school I would not consider it nearly enough,” Webster said. “I respect that position. I respect that for other people, including alumni who experienced predatory behavior, sexual abuse or marginalization, it’s inadequate. For others, it’s an important part of their story but not the only part of their story. Those folks, whether through spiritual practice, therapy or their connection to nature, have moved to a place where they want to transform their experience so it doesn’t get transmitted to the generations that follow.”

While school officials said they took steps to invite members of the St. Paul’s community to Saturday’s event through email blasts, a message in the alumni magazine, a website bulletin and one-on-one outreach, the details were sparse until recently and may not have given most victims the time to prepare, alumni said.

“We know that adequate time has not been delivered in one very important way: that is, it’s very difficult to give notice to people who don’t feel safe at St. Paul’s adequate or sufficient notice such that they do specifically feel safe to appear,” said Alexis Johnson, a lawyer and graduate of the Class of 1976. “The work on ‘safety’ in that regard is far from complete – if even addressed. So with that said, it is expected that there will be an awful lot of empty seats in the chapel, seats that in a more perfect universe would be filled with kind people who seek apology or reconciliation.”

Johnson is planning to attend the service, in part, to bear witness for victims who played a salient role in early conversations about adult-child abuse who’ve since passed away or moved on. He said he is coming to Concord with the understanding that the service is one step and not the only step toward reconciliation.

Alumni said real and authentic change comes with time especially when sexual abuse is so much a part of the school’s history and culture.

“We now know that SPS has a long and established history of abuse, cover-up, denial and a pattern of shaming, isolating and silencing victims of abuse – common attributes of other complicit institutions. The culture of the school is defined and stained by this history,” said Alex Prout, a St. Paul’s alumnus whose daughter, Chessy Prout, was sexually assaulted as a 15-year-old freshman by senior Owen Labrie.

“Change of culture does not happen with a ceremony and song. It only occurs with true introspection, dialogue, accountability and commitment,” he said.

The school said there will be crisis center advocates, trauma-informed counselors and clergy available to offer support and to speak with victims throughout and after Saturday’s service, which is scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m.

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


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