Great Is the Truth

Sexual Abuse at the Horace Mann School

It might have been a headline on page one of New York City’s tabloids. Instead “Prep-School Predators” screamed from the cover of the June 10, 2012, New York Times Magazine. Inside, a 9,500-word article told an appalling story. For years a nest of teachers, administrators, and coaches had apparently enjoyed free run in sexually abusing students at Horace Mann, an elite preparatory school in the upscale Riverdale section of New York City. A feeder school to the Ivies, Horace Mann alums include a healthy cross-section of the nation’s most influential political, business, and cultural leaders: top-rank lawyers, hedge-fund and real-estate magnates, publishers, authors, movie-makers, cabinet members in Washington, and city officials in New York. Jack Kerouac even spent an enjoyable year there as a condition for his football scholarship at Columbia.

To someone like myself decades deep into trying to map the scope, grasp the pain, and plumb the causes of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, the 2012 Horace Mann story was unavoidably eye-opening. Not because it showed the sickening extent of undetected, unheeded, or unpunished sexual abuse beyond the confines of the Catholic Church. Anyone who cared should have already been aware of that from data about dysfunctional families, youth organizations like the Boy Scouts, penal institutions for young offenders, public schools, athletic programs, and other religious groups. Today even the British establishment, whose elite schools have long been notoriously blasé about this sort of thing, is being shaken by scandals.

What made the Horace Mann scandal noteworthy from the Catholic perspective was that the school contrasted dramatically with common impressions of Catholic institutional environments. Horace Mann reflected a late-nineteenth-century movement to extend the élan and rigor of elite boarding schools like Exeter or Groton to students living at home. The school was the very model of open, tolerant, self-critical education; it flaunted the liberal virtues; it was anything but hierarchical or authoritarian or repressive; it did not wrap itself in a sacred aura or wield the power of heaven and hell.

Amos Kamil, the author of that Times Magazine exposé and (with Sean Elder) of this book, was himself a grateful student at Horace Mann for his last three years of secondary school, from 1979 to 1983. A straight-A ninth-grader in public school, he had been escaping from a dissolving family and drifting into a kind of proto-slacker life of neighborhood drinking, drugs, and hanging out. He was rescued by his baseball skills, which caught the eye of Horace Mann’s headmaster, who was also the school’s fanatic baseball coach.

As a newcomer to the school on a baseball scholarship, Kamil picked up vague warnings about certain faculty members, but it was only on a post-college camping trip with four Horace Mann buddies that one of them announced that he had been raped in eighth grade by a popular art teacher and football coach. A second one recounted shocking advances from the world--renowned head of the music department. A third described discussions in the nude with a beloved English teacher, insisting, not very convincingly, that they were entirely innocent. The fourth joined Kamil in recalling a weird alcohol-fueled dinner with the headmaster and his “creepy sidekick,” a “notorious groper.”

In 2011, nearly twenty years after those wilderness confessions, Kamil was jolted into action not by the Catholic sex scandals—to him the church was a mystery “shrouded in incense”—but by the revelations about Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of children at that football superpower, Penn State University. Kamil began contacting old Horace Mann friends and friends of friends; the sordid story soon tumbled out, and after he wrote it for the Times, it grew wider and deeper. A few weeks later the Times reported on page one that Tek Young Lin, a retired Horace Mann English teacher and track coach, beloved as a kind of Buddhist sprite for his eccentric teaching style and campus gardening, confessed that he had had sex with students. “In those days,” he said, “it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong.” Websites and social media were suddenly buzzing with new accusations and the whole range of Horace Mann alumni responses, from horror to “let bygones be bygones.”

Despite the cultural chasm that divided Horace Mann from the Catholic Church, and recognizing the asymmetry in comparing one school to many dioceses, similar patterns of abuse and institutional turpitude stand out. First of all, the harm to victims: lives on hold, shattered capacities for trust and love, broken family ties, frequent descent into drink or drugs, suicides. Predators at Horace Mann as in the church targeted the emotionally vulnerable and groomed them in similar ways. Co-workers chose to avert their eyes and not get involved. Complaints were buried or ignored; disappearances of faculty, like those of priests, went unexplained; credible charges were neither made public nor reported to civil authorities. The first priority was protecting the institution’s reputation.

But again allowing for the diversity of Catholic experiences, Horace Mann at least matched if not outdid the church in hardball tactics. The school’s current administrators and trustees stone-walled first Kamil and then the many critics who emerged, refusing to name names or invite any kind of independent investigation, and successfully out-maneuvering the victims. All this occurred at a liberal institution not run by celibates, in thrall to authoritarian hierarchy, drilled into dogmatic conformity, or lacking parental presence. (Parents of current students were often reluctant to see their massive tuition investment in the school’s reputation threatened by digging up skeletons from the past.)

None of this should exonerate or lessen outrage at what happened in Catholic parishes and schools. It does suggest that in looking for explanations we should consider opening our frames of reference.

 

MAGNA EST VERITAS ET PRAEVALET is Horace Mann’s motto: “Great is the truth and it prevails,” is the literal translation sung in the school’s “Alma Mater.” Kamil’s choice of the phrase for his book’s title is revealing. Nothing seems to dismay and disillusion him more than his school’s unwillingness to authorize a thorough, independent investigation of what happened and why. Thanks to tight-lipped school officials and board members and a successful legal defense, there were no documents pried open, no revealing interviews offered. By no means can it be argued that the full Catholic story has been told in Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett’s stinging 2004 report to the bishops’ National Review Board or in the John Jay study commissioned by the bishops, most notably in its feeble history section, or in the many legal depositions by individual bishops. By comparison, however, Horace Mann managed to stay mum.

One of the book’s most powerful sections is its inside account, at least from the victims’ side, of the legal negotiations with Horace Mann’s board. As a result of Kamil’s exposé and the subsequent revelations, a band of survivors met, approached the board, and formulated their demands. Besides protective measures against such abuse ever reoccurring, the group asked for an independent investigation of what had happened, support for legislation extending New York State’s stringent statute of limitations for sexual-abuse claims, and financial restitution for victims.

Only the latter was obtained, and it proved problematic if not downright toxic, according to Kamil. How do you put a dollar sum on years of suffering or irreversible losses? Some individuals had suffered inexcusable but passing harassment; others had undergone years of abuse. But the extent of the abuse was not necessarily the extent of the suffering caused or the extent of financial need. All sorts of variables come into play: fragile or sturdy personalities, support or lack of it from family or faith, or just lucky or unlucky breaks.

Deeply wounded or not, the Horace Mann survivors were clearly an unusual group, and not surprisingly. The school was selective and aimed at producing highly educated, articulate individuals, many apparently well-connected and world-wise in addition. This would not avail them in what was to come. First, their team of attorneys surveyed each survivor on what damages to demand. The sums were sometimes “astronomically high,” said one survivor, who admitted, “I did walk around that weekend thinking my life was about to significantly change.”

Sorry. Horace Mann’s lawyers would have none of it. To a request for $300,000, they would counter $10,000; for $800,000, $50,000; for $1.2 million, $75,000. Kamil writes that survivors found their lawyers “shell-shocked”—and the survivors themselves “devastated.” One by one they settled for sums far less than they had anticipated.

The board’s leverage was, first, New York’s statute of limitations that ruled out lawsuits for these middle-aged victims and, second, the survivors’ ill-advised agreement to forgo publicity, which ruled out shaming the school into doing more.

To Kamil this outcome was grossly unfair, a “retraumatization” by a school with the wherewithal to be financially forthcoming. Guessing that the settlements totaled between $4 and $5 million, he compares them to another New York City prep-school settlement and to Penn State’s $59.7 million for only a few more victims. If, as seems likely, Penn State acted decisively in order to preclude any debilitating repeat of the endless Catholic scandal, it also seems possible that Horace Mann’s first-tier lawyers drew exactly the opposite lesson: better to be tough and not invite further demands.

That is pure speculation on my part; but here, too, greater familiarity with the Catholic story might have informed Kamil’s perspective. Settlements with dioceses have ranged hugely in amounts, often to the point of arbitrariness. By some examples, Horace Mann claimants did not do badly.

The closing section of this book focuses interestingly but very narrowly on past and present responses to sexual abuse in private prep schools like Horace Mann, schools that educate only the tiniest slice of American students. That focus makes Kamil an unqualified backer of a recurrent proposal to extend New York’s statute of limitations for sex crimes. This is something that badly needs to be done, but Kamil takes no note of the objection that the proposal as written would leave the vast majority of public-school students uncovered; and in practice its provision for a one-year window in which to file what would be largely unresolvable lawsuits from any time in the past will have a far greater impact on inner-city Catholic institutions than on moneyed and well-lawyered places like Horace Mann.

This is one of the places where the author’s efforts to be fair fall short. Horace Mann officials, trustees, and supporters will probably find others. In describing their actions, however, Kamil usually incorporates somebody’s testimony to those individuals’ humanity and distress over the past abuse.

 

THERE IS OF COURSE one unavoidable source of uneasiness in the book: None of the accusations have been aired and resolved in a court of law. What about the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty? The Bronx district attorney found twenty-two likely predators, all protected by the statute of limitations; but less than half are named in this book, and almost all of them are dead. I was reminded of reviewing my chapter on sexual abuse in A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America with the publisher’s lawyer. At each name, she would ask, “Alive or dead?” If I said “dead,” she would immediately pass on. If I said “alive,” she would ask that I find a way not to name him, no matter how notorious the case or egregious the evidence. The dead cannot sue for libel. Or defend themselves. At one point, Kamil is stunned by the seemingly fantastic story of Jon Sieger, a 1979 Horace Mann graduate who described a drunken evening in which the headmaster and his sidekick, after a visit to a Manhattan gay club, hired male prostitutes to “get things going” before abusing the student all night. Sieger, a jazz musician, was the only former student specifically to accuse the admittedly alcoholic headmaster, who had changed Kamil’s life. Sieger claimed to have been abused by eight teachers altogether, including one so important to Kamil that he had named a son after him. Abused by an uncle at an earlier age, Sieger admitted having become a male prostitute, drug user, and pornographic-film actor. Kamil spent ten hours listening to the nauseating details. The story “put me in a dilemma,” he writes. “It wasn’t precisely that I didn’t believe him. It was that I didn’t want to believe him.” Kamil refers to studies showing that only a tiny percentage of abuse reports to law enforcement officials turn out to be false. I too have been referred to those studies. They never totally dissipate my queasiness about frightful charges that the accused have had no opportunity to answer.

Kamil only glances at the question of hiring and vetting and supervising faculty members at Horace Mann. Who was involved? What recommendations and records were kept? The process seems as closed and secretive as in the church.

Another puzzle surrounds the fact that, as in the Catholic case, most of the abuse reported is concentrated in the 1970s and ’80s. Is this just an artifact of reporting, as survivor advocates have long insisted, or something more specific to those years, as the John Jay study suggests? What was the sex ethic among the student body itself during that time period? Could it have affected what predators were able to get away with? (There was a remarkable degree of joint student-faculty partying and barhopping, with fake IDs for the students.)

Finally, although Kamil attempts to explore why upright faculty and administrators from those years were so blind and passive about what was happening, I wish that he had devoted more than a few passing lines to his own passivity and that of his friends for two decades.

Great Is the Truth is not a perfect book, but in this case as in so many, perfection should not be the enemy of the good. This book is very good.

Published in the October 23, 2015 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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