At Carolina Friends School, a search for truth

07/21/2014 10:18 AM

07/21/2014 10:17 AM

At Carolina Friends School, children learn early the power of silence.

Wisdom begins in silent reflection, Quakers believe. As preschoolers, the students start their day by settling into a hush, if only for a few moments. By the time they reach high school, they sit silently for 25 minutes at their weekly Meeting for Worship. After a time, anyone moved by God may speak.

For decades, at least five alumni of the Quaker school kept quiet about a scourge of sexual abuse that had infiltrated their community in the 1970s. A few had whispered among themselves about what had happened there when they were boys.

Then, in a spontaneous gesture in 2012, one of them was moved to post something on a Carolina Friends reunion group email list: “ If anyone was on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior by adults at the school all those years ago, reach out if you need someone to talk to.”

What he had in mind, he said, was an informal support group. Years before, a friend had confided that he, too, had been abused at the school. There had to be others.

“With sexual abuse, it’s the secrecy, the silence. The shame is what magnifies the hurt,” the man, now 57, said in an interview. The News & Observer generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Talking with the others might be comforting, he thought, “to be able to go forward and say, ‘It’s not just me; it could not have been my fault.’ ”

Several alumni started to communicate and, eventually, someone posed a question: “ I wonder if there’s anything the school can do now?”

There was. Last month, after a two-year investigation, the school went public. It shocked the community with the revelation that five students had reported being inappropriately touched by a former principal. One of the five also alleged improper touching by a former teacher.

Carolina Friends posted a letter on its website disclosing the decades-old abuse, identifying the alleged perpetrators by name and apologizing for the harm victims suffered at the school. Emails were sent to alumni and current and former parents. Other schools where the principal and teacher had worked were notified.

In a rare move, the school contacted the media and encouraged any additional victims to come forward. A hotline was set up with a psychologist at the ready.

The news that former Carolina Friends educators were accused of violating children was heart-wrenching, said assistant principal Renee Prillaman. “Like a punch in the gut.”

The school had reported the allegations to local law enforcement soon after the email list discussion two years ago. Because the alleged actions occurred so long ago and would have been classified as misdemeanors, it was fairly clear that the former principal and teacher wouldn’t be prosecuted in a court of law. The statute of limitations on misdemeanors had long run out.

But the school could still try to unearth the truth, no matter how painful, said Mike Hanas, the current principal.

“As a Friends community, at our best,” Hanas said, “we ought to be relentlessly truth-seeking.”

The suicide

Two weeks after the school’s letter went public, Hanas was still consumed with the fallout. He had answered hundreds of emails from parents, alumni and others.

A few additional alumni called him to report that they had also suffered abuse. The school has begun to investigate new claims and will turn over additional information to law enforcement.

Adding to the sadness was another piece of devastating news: The named former teacher, Bill Butcher, 71, committed suicide the day after the Carolina Friends letter was posted.

The school had been in contact with Butcher the week before. Butcher didn’t deny the behavior and expressed remorse, Hanas said, along with a willingness to participate in a reconciliation process. Hanas had told him about the school’s communication plan and asked if Butcher had people around to support him.

Hours before Butcher was found dead in his home in the mountains in West Jefferson, he had emailed Hanas, thanking him for sending the school’s letter, apologizing, and saying he hoped Hanas would never again face that kind of burden.

“Even that night, he was articulate, thoughtful,” Hanas said of the email. “He was lonely. I was worried about that.”

The event was another blow to a community already reeling.

Hanas found out about Butcher’s death after someone who received the letter Googled Butcher’s name and discovered his obituary. Online tributes from former students and friends described him as a spiritual and philosophical mentor, gentle and kind.

The reaction

The school crafted another letter, informing the community of Butcher’s death.

Some were outraged that Carolina Friends had publicly identified Butcher and Harold Jernigan, the former principal, even though the men had not been charged with a crime. (The News & Observer has not previously identified Jernigan but is doing so now because of additional information gathered during the reporting of this story.)

One parent wrote that the disclosure abandoned the innocent-until-proven-guilty standard at the core of the justice system. A friend of Butcher’s wrote that the school had wrongly put itself in the position of judge, jury and executioner, convicting the two accused men in the media. That, the friend said, drove Butcher over the edge.

Others were critical of the school for waiting two years to disclose the past abuse. Mostly, though, the reaction was positive.

Marybeth Dugan, parent of an alumnus, wrote that the school’s response was impeccable. “Sometimes it is the worst of times that allow for our brightest light to shine,” Dugan said in an email to administrators. “I am proud of the upfront transparency, timing and care of moving this process into the public realm. It is brave and right.”

Alumnus Rob Jentsch said the approach should be an example to others whose inaction represented a failure of leadership. He wondered: Could abuse by priests in the Catholic Church or sexual assaults on college campuses have been prevented if those institutions had investigated and corroborated early reports of misconduct?

“How many fewer harmed?” Jentsch wrote in an email to Hanas. “How many more healing?”

The alleged misconduct occurred from 1969 to 1976 during an era when child sexual abuse wasn’t a part of the national consciousness. Now, in the aftermath of the Catholic Church abuse crisis and Jerry Sandusky’s crimes at Penn State, reports of abuse crop up almost weekly.

Last year, at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, the school disclosed allegations against two men, including a 44-year former teacher whose name was stripped from the school’s squash facility. Last week, the Green Meadow Waldorf School in New York admitted that its lack of response allowed the predatory behavior of a former math teacher who assaulted a dozen girls, including one who, now an adult, wrote about it in her memoir.

Alumni of the elite Horace Mann prep have formed a coalition to fund an independent investigation of rampant abuse involving multiple faculty members over decades at the New York City school; the school faces a lawsuit and reached a financial settlement with more than two dozen victims. Some states are changing statute of limitations laws to allow more legal action by victims.

Child sexual abuse is damaging enough without an institutional cover-up, said Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, a psychologist and author of the 2007 book “Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church.”

Frawley-O’Dea said Carolina Friends School has taken a victim-centered approach that includes acknowledging the abuse, providing counseling resources, revamping policies, training staff members and creating a safe space for victims to step forward.

“It’s extraordinarily rare and very impressive,” she said. “They’re doing all the right things.”

The Catholic Church had largely taken a legalistic approach, she said, but has paid roughly $3 billion to victims.

“Had they done what the Quakers have done, I don’t think a fraction of the lawsuits would have occurred,” said Frawley-O’Dea, director of counseling at Presbyterian Psychological Services in Charlotte. “What the victims want, what most victims want, is to have someone say, ‘This never should have happened. We’re so sorry.’ ”

The abuse

At first, the alumnus who started the email list discussion was a little unnerved by the response, and by the investigation, he said. But he now thinks the school’s handling of the situation has been exemplary.

“A number of people came forward who said they thought they were the only ones,” he said in an interview. “This is pretty typical of this kind of thing. You think you’re the only one. Just knowing that you’re not can be a healing thing.”

There’s something cathartic about letting go of the story, he said.

He hadn’t told a soul when it happened to him as a 12-year-old. The principal had taken an interest in his life. The boy had come to Carolina Friends from a troubled situation at home, he said. Jernigan was sympathetic.

“He would invite me into his office, which is where these encounters would take place,” the alumnus said. “On a scale of sexual abuse, it was relatively minor – inappropriate touching. But still pretty bad, very inappropriate and confusing.”

It happened six, eight, 10 times, he said.

The school has said that of the five victims, none reported penetration or actions that would constitute a felony at the time they are alleged to have occurred. A felony offense would be prosecutable today.

Other children, the alum would find out later, were better at fending off the principal’s advances.

“There were a couple of people; it happened once and they made sure never to be alone in his office again,” he said.

Even with the betrayal, he has mixed feelings about Jernigan, who helped arrange for him to go to boarding school the next year – escaping his unhappy home. The principal also persuaded his parents to send him to a psychiatrist.

“When I look at all the good things that happened in my life, I owe a lot of it to him because I was in an abusive home situation and I really didn’t realize it,” he said. “I was in total denial. He noticed something was wrong.”

Later, investigators hired by the school would conclude that there was a pervasive pattern of “grooming” children for abuse by building trust, breaking down emotional barriers and gaining access to the children, while minimizing the risk of getting caught.

Frawley-O’Dea said the story isn’t unique.

“It is the Boy Scout leader, the coach, the priest, the principal,” she said. “It’s the people in a child’s life that have power and who are also usually quite gifted at being able to stand on a playground and pick the kids who would be the ‘good victims’ who won’t speak, won’t tell.”

The alumnus said he’s upset the principal has not acknowledged the accusations. But he said he doesn’t regret sending his original message.

“If you read Quaker literature, they spell ‘Truth’ in the uppercase – the implication of divinity,” he said, “that it is a holy thing to continue that search for truth.”

The inquiry

The email list post wasn’t the first signal that something had been wrong at the school. In 2003, Hanas said, one alumnus came to him with an allegation of past abuse but wasn’t prepared to share the information with anyone else.

Looking back, Hanas said he wishes he had worked harder to persuade him to tell his story to authorities.

“I didn’t know the pervasiveness of it,” he said. “At that point, Penn State hadn’t happened. A number of factors that I think contributed to the guys being more ready in 2012 were not in place in 2003.”

In 2012, when he heard about the email list, Hanas said, he felt free to pursue an investigation once the alumni consented.

Hanas notified the district attorney, social services and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

He presented the information to the board, which encouraged him to find outside assistance for the school’s own inquiry. To conduct the investigation, the school hired two Philadelphia lawyers, former sex crime prosecutors whose firm has built a national practice on institutional response to sexual misconduct.

The women, Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez, have crisscrossed the country as a wave of universities face federal investigations of mishandling sexual assault cases. They have consulted for UNC-Chapel Hill as it crafts new policies and procedures.

Smith and Gomez, both parents of children in a Quaker school, said they were sensitive to the approach Carolina Friends wanted to take.

“For me what really stands out at Carolina (Friends) are the care, the commitment of the Quaker values, and tying decisions so directly to what’s the right thing to do and how do we accomplish that,” Gomez said.

The women traveled to interview the alumni and talked to law enforcement. What no one has been able to do is interview Jernigan, who is in his 80s and lives in New Jersey, Hanas said.

A family member confirmed that the former principal received the school’s information, but Jernigan has not responded, Hanas said. Repeated attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Lt. Tina Sykes of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said she could not comment on the investigation because it involved offenses against juveniles.

In May, Hanas said, the sheriff’s investigators informed the school that their work was on hold unless new information became available. They gave the school the go-ahead to talk about the case.

It was time to make the public disclosure.

Three days after graduation, Hanas called the school faculty together in the Upper School Meeting Hall.

As difficult as it was, Hanas said there was a measure of relief for him. “I was finally going to be able to invite my community to hold it with me,” he said.

There were questions, tears, sadness, a feeling of betrayal.

Then, as staffers tell it, veteran middle school teacher Henry Walker stood up and recited a passage. It was from “The Real Lovers of God” by poet-saint Narsinha Mehta. It was said to have been a favorite hymn of Gandhi’s.

They are the real lovers of God

Who feel others’ sorrow as their own.

When they perform selfless service,

They are humble servants of the Lord.

Respecting all, despising none,

They are pure in thought, word, and deed.

Then there was silence.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service