Revisionist History in Abuse Cases

By Ginia Bellafante (New York Times)
June 29, 2012

Institutional history — who gets to define it, promote it, exploit it, obscure it, distort it — sits at the heart of child sexual abuse charges like those currently unfolding at two of the city's private schools: Horace Mann, in the Bronx, and Poly Prep, in Brooklyn. And so, too, in a broader sense, does the matter of cultural history itself. A consistent theme in the defensive narrative in these cases — which involve stories of abuse that surface decades after it happened — is that the world then bore little resemblance to the one we occupy now, boundaries were unclearly delineated, and a certain kind of ignorance reigned.

This year, Lisa M. Friel, the former Manhattan prosecutor who has helped Poly Prep bolster its sexual-abuse-prevention program, angered plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the school when she said in an interview that "people had very different understandings of what sexual abuse was in the '60s and '70s and what a pedophile was."

Revisionism of this kind has been at play in the case of Horace Mann, as well, whose darker past was chronicled in The New York Times Magazine last month. In a follow-up article published in The Times last week, Jenny Anderson, a reporter, spoke with Tek Young Lin, a teacher who retired in 1986 and had recently been accused of abuses. He admitted to her that he had slept with students.

"In those days, the '60s and '70s, things were different," he said. He also said, "In those days, it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong."

In this strain of exoneration, the rhetoric of the sexual revolution confused things. All sex was liberating. If you lived in Fairfield County, Conn., in 1975, you expressed your autonomy by sleeping with your husband's tennis partner. As Estelle Freedman, a Stanford University historian who has written about sexual violence, put it, the danger is that "a deregulatory impulse could mask the question of consent."

One problem with an argument like Mr. Lin's is the extent to which it belies the secrecy surrounding the kind of encounters he describes. If things had, in fact, been as open, freewheeling and inoculated from reproof as he and others might have chosen to believe, then the sex that transpired between teachers and students would not have happened so clandestinely, with wrenching admissions and discussions arriving only 20 and 30 years later.

In Poly Prep's case, a group of alumni of the school and its summer camp accuses the school of conspiring to mask what it said were repeated instances of rape and molesting at the hands of the former football coach Philip Foglietta, who started working at the school in 1966 and died in 1998. The group argues that the school's cover-up prevented its members from filing suit in a timely fashion.

On June 5, Magistrate Judge Cheryl L. Pollak of Federal District Court declared that there was sufficient evidence to go forward with a hearing that would determine whether Poly Prep and its legal counsel had delivered misleading testimonies and concealed or misrepresented various facts in the case.

The victory was brief. Two weeks later, Judge Frederic Block, who is ultimately presiding over the case, said the plaintiffs had a "hard road to overcome." On June 22, the school's lawyers predictably filed an objection, countering that there was inadequate ground for establishing fraud and, most enraging to plaintiffs, that any accusations of fraud, a very serious affair, were essentially irrelevant because the suit had been filed so long after the alleged abuse — beyond the time frame the law permits.

The school's legal position may well prevail. In 2004, a civil suit against Poly Prep over the abuse was dismissed because the statute of limitations had been exceeded. Ostensibly, in the law's view, victims of a childhood sexual attack ought to reckon with it as efficiently as if they were submitting an expense account for reimbursement.

While it is true that the world of parental vigilance we inhabit now was not yet manifest in the '70s or even the '80s, when much of the abuse at Horace Mann is said to have happened, it skews reality to imagine that the sexual abuse of children is an issue that only recently has seen the rays of the sun. By 1974, years before the arrival of Lifetime television and its relentless airing of crisis dramas, ABC offered an hour of the series "Marcus Welby, M.D." devoted to the case of a 14-year-old boy who had been raped by a science teacher during a field trip.

In 1980, there were at least three books published on the sexual abuse of children, each warranting the attention of The New York Times Book Review. One, "The Best Kept Secret," by a psychiatric social worker, reported that 20 percent of the female victims of reported sex crimes in New York City and 6.4 percent of the male victims, in 1975, were under 14.

Sexual crimes against children became the focus of governmental reports as early as the 1920s. And in a 1950 series called "Terror in Our Cities," Collier's magazine included a roundup of headlines from St. Louis that included "6-Year-Old Girl at Ashland School Molested," and "Man Accused by 8-Year-Old Boy of Molesting Him in Theatre." This was still at least 20 years before Mr. Lin's transgressions.

Times are different, in that more children who have been abused say so. In his research, David Finkelhor, a leading expert on sexual abuse who wrote one of the 1980 books, has found that now, in 50 percent of sexual abuse cases, the child's victimization had been reported to an authority, compared with 25 percent in 1992. Dr. Finkelhor has also found that the number of substantiated cases of abuse has dropped 62 percent from 1990 to 2010.

Interestingly, the law is not predisposed to favor the "different era" defense. Twice in Connecticut during the past two years, judges presiding over claims of child sexual abuse blocked defendants from presenting evidence regarding shifting attitudes on the subject. Aided by powerful legal protections, prep schools, like religious institutions, traffic in tradition as they relate flexibly to history. But history is a fickle ally.