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Victims say power structure at St. Paul’s fostered decades of sexual abuse

Monitor staff
Published: 7/8/2017 11:46:36 PM

Going against the power structure was never an option at St. Paul’s School, where everyone from faculty members – known as masters – on down to first-year students understood their social standing.

Good students never questioned authority because they knew their success depended on a strict compliance with and respect for an institution, which had graduated some of the most prominent financial and political leaders in the nation. The rules were clear to several former St. Paul’s students who were sexually assaulted during their time on campus, they said.

“You don’t have a school that makes you refer to teachers as masters that isn’t very much aware of its own power structure. There was no question these people had our futures in their hands. If you were a good boy, you went to Yale or Harvard. Otherwise, you could face a great detriment,” said alumnus Biff Mithoefer, who attended St. Paul’s in the late 1960s.

Mithoefer, who grew up in a small town, said he enrolled at St. Paul’s without much worldly knowledge and with his innocence still largely intact. That changed rather quickly during his four years at the formerly all-boys boarding school, which he said exposed him to people of varied backgrounds and new philosophies – both good and bad.

While the educational experience was altogether positive, Mithoefer said dark secrets lurked in the school’s residential buildings, where students were groomed and subjected to horrific abuses by faculty members entrusted with their care.

“In hindsight, it was so clear what was happening,” he said. “At the time, I had no experience.”

For decades, Mithoefer, now 66, never spoke about the sexual abuse he suffered by three faculty members on St. Paul’s campus. He was scared, ashamed and felt alone.

“The most striking one – and the one I remember most – happened in a darkened car,” he said.

Mithoefer had gone to dinner with a faculty member. On their return to campus, they pulled over on the side of the road, where the teacher offered him a cigarette.

“He put his hand in my crotch and asked if he could do certain things. I remember every detail,” Mithoefer said.

That abuser is not named in a 71-page independent report released by the school in May, although the man later publicly admitted to sexually assaulting a 17-year-old after his tenure at St. Paul’s. The report – commissioned by the school and carried out by a former Massachusetts attorney general – substantiates sexual abuse claims against 13 former St. Paul’s teachers between 1948 and 1988.

Mithoefer and other St. Paul’s victims told the Monitor in separate interviews in June that the report does not name several prominent faculty members believed to have sexually assaulted students.

It does identify Robert Maurice Degouey, a French teacher at St. Paul’s from 1967 to 1978, who lived several doors down from Mithoefer. He recalled in a recent interview how Degouey regularly invited him inside a faculty apartment, where he groomed students by saying “very inappropriate things.”

“At the time, I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew it was creepy,” Mithoefer said.

The report also names Jose A.G. “Senor” Ordonez, a history teacher from 1952 to 1987 and a former cross-country coach. Ordonez is accused of having had a sexual relationship with at least one male student and of propositioning others, according to the report.

An early 1970s graduate of St. Paul’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Ordonez was one of two masters who approached him during his four years at the institution. The man described the sexual assault as “very physical and intense,” and said it occurred while he and Ordonez were skinny-dipping in a quarry.

The St. Paul’s alumnus said he’s been very open about his story for the past 25 years but noted that the school has never once offered its support. He said many people are still hiding past abuse, and aren’t going to talk freely with the law firm commissioned to do the report when they have never told their closest friends and family members.

No student thought he had a right to report sexual abuse by a trusted advisor, and in the rare cases when some did, the outcome wasn’t favorable, victims said.

“I’ve been thinking about this issue for 15 years,” Mithoefer said. “I finally said I need to step forward because abuse is still happening – it’s built into the culture there. It’s hard for me to find the words sometimes, but I’m willing to do all I can. The whole truth needs to come out.”

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