By Sam Roudman (BuzzFeed News)
July 22, 2015
Jon Seiger thought the photo was a secret. The sexually explicit image had been taken — when Seiger was just 14 — by a man who during the day was teaching him history at the prestigious Horace Mann School in New York, and in off-hours was sexually abusing him. It had been intended to humiliate Seiger into silence.
Now 53, Seiger is a veteran jazz musician, a big guy with a cochlear implant. But when he entered Horace Mann in 1972, he was an 11-year-old music prodigy, courted by one of the most venerable prep schools in the country. All told, he says, eight Horace Mann teachers abused him hundreds of times between 1972 and 1979. Recently, he joined 31 other former students who came forward to say that they, too, had been abused by the school’s faculty members — an epidemic spanning decades that they say was enabled by the administration. After months of strategizing, those survivors were now heading into mediation with representatives of the school, hopeful for a settlement — and an apology.
Seiger’s lawyers had asked him to give them a copy of the photo, insisting they would not use it in the mediation; in fact, they promised they would not even look at it themselves. But when he walked into the conference room that day in March 2013 and faced an intimidating phalanx of Horace Mann’s powerful representatives, his own lawyer displayed that harrowing image and asked him to explain the photo to everyone assembled.
“What the hell was that?” Seiger remembers yelling as soon as the meeting ended. He wasn’t sure if it had been the full image or just an expurgated version, but either way, how could his lawyers ambush a survivor of childhood sexual abuse with the most painful artifact of his trauma? The lawyers’ answer was simple, he now says: They were trying to provoke in him the most emotionally raw response they could. When it came to winning settlement money, more pain could mean more money. Accepting a tactic like this as benevolent proved tricky; Seiger recalls thinking, Is there anybody in the world who is on my side?
In May of this year, an alumni group called the Horace Mann Action Coalition (HMAC) released a report formalizing what had become an open secret: 64 alumni, mainly but not exclusively men, had come forward to report their abuse from the ’60s through the ’90s, implicating 22 faculty members who worked at the school. What’s worse, it confirmed that the school received 25 reports of abuse between 1962 and 2011, none of which resulted in an investigation or a report to the district attorney or police.
But despite all this — and despite enlisting one of the most powerful and well-known lawyers in the country — a group of men and women who came together decades after their abuse to seek solace, justice, and compensation were rewarded instead with a fresh and protracted trauma. A difficult mediation process meant to circumvent New York’s unusually restrictive statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases ultimately yielded payouts so low that Seiger says, “You could drop it in the street and forget about it.” (According to the terms of the settlement, Seiger is not allowed to specify the amount.)
But even more dissatisfying to those who wanted closure: Confronted with public outcry and damning evidence, the school would not participate in any inquiry into how and why these abuses were allowed to continue for so long. Although many of the former students were now white-collar professionals, with all the resources and savvy required to mount they best defense possible, they found themselves powerless — exhuming and reliving the trauma they’d spent their entire lives trying to overcome, only to again find themselves feeling humiliated.
“I had this vision in my mind of me standing shoulder to shoulder with [Headmaster] Tom Kelly at a press conference,” remembers Joseph Cumming, 55, a pastor at Yale who was abused at Horace Mann in the ‘70s. “We announce that the school was going to commission an independent investigation, and that the school was apologizing.” In his vision, survivors accept the apology and forgive the school. “Perhaps that was a naïve fantasy.”
As a kid, Cumming loved his school. “Until the sexual abuse began I had a very happy experience at Horace Mann,” he says. He excelled at music and studied under the school’s maestro, Johannes Somary, a charismatic Swiss man who impressed students with his passion for Baroque music, the Jaguar he drove, and his lavish house appointed with paintings by Monet and Renoir. Somary began abusing Cumming in 1975 when he was 15.
“It was like this little step-by-step process,” Cumming remembers. “Surely there must be an innocent explanation: Maybe this is how European artists express affection innocently?”
Senior year, Cumming’s grades dropped off. He couldn’t bear to set foot on the campus that he loved, that he was proud of, for weeks at a time. “I was tormented by the self-loathing and feelings of guilt and self-hatred and confusion,” he says. At age 17, he was prepared to jump from a fifth-floor window when he says he heard a divine voice, talking him down. The abuse did not end for Cumming, but the moment was a turning point, and he began pulling away from Somary. Cumming chose to attend Princeton where his father had gone, rather than Yale, where Somary had pulled strings for him to attend.
After Cumming was ordained as a minister in the early ’90s, he was trained to identify and report child abuse and learned for the first time that most pedophiles have more than a single victim. “I decided, OK, if I ever find one other person who says Johannes touched him in the wrong way, I will report him to the authorities.” Still, he had no way to ask anyone without indicting Somary, and outing himself. By the late ‘90s Cumming started searching the same terms on a near daily basis: “Johannes Somary child abuse,” “Johannes Somary pedophilia.” In February 2011, Somary died. Weeks later, Cumming discovered a blog: “Johannes Somary, Pedophile.” In its first post, a person going by the initials EB wrote:
“Though Mr. Somary brought the gift of music to many and had a long and celebrated career, he was also a molester of children. … Those events had a devastating impact on my life. You may ask, why bring this up now, now that he is gone? The reason is that I know there are others out there like me and I believe that by connecting we may be able to help each other to heal.”
Cumming reached out to EB — Ed Bowen, a Horace Mann grad abused by Somary a few years before Cumming was. They spoke on the phone, painfully recounting their stories. “Neither of us had told the story to anyone,” says Cumming, save for Bowen to his therapist, and Cumming to his wife. For the first time, he understood that what he’d experienced was truly, unambiguously, sexual abuse, and that he wasn’t alone. He also knew that the abuse was unlikely limited to them. He told Bowen, “If there are two of us there are probably 10 of us.”
Bowen suggested they reach out to other survivors. “I think things need to be talked about,” says Bowen. “I think they fester and make you really ill when they just lay deep in your subconscious.” Years of therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous had informed his thinking. He thought other survivors deserved the same forum to speak about what had happened, the chance to feel the same sense of healing. The two put together a list of students they suspected were abused, and started making calls. Of those who returned his calls, Cumming says, “Every single one said, ‘Yes, Johannes initiated sexual relations with me.’ Every single one.”
Then a June 2012 New York Times Magazine exposé put the rampant sex abuse at the then-125-year-old institution in the national spotlight, and, finally, some kind of reconciliation seemed possible. The article racked up more than a thousand comments, prompting the Times to shut them off. The Bronx DA set up a hotline to gather accounts of abuse, and a Facebook group for alumni called “Processing Horace Mann” grew to 2,200 members in 10 days. The group became a safe haven for survivors to come out with their stories, and for other alumni to express disappointment, astonishment, and disbelief. This also provided a platform for Cumming and a few others to seek out people who had not yet told anyone of their abuse.
By the time the survivors group first met in the conference room of Bowen’s Harlem apartment building the week after the story broke, they were shell-shocked. “We thought if we could come together to encourage each other, that would be healing,” says Cumming. With his rimmed glasses, stubbled beard, and deliberate cadence, he can seem like the platonic ideal of a pastor, a quality that would be put to use: Having spent years promoting rapprochement between Muslims and Christians, Cumming was no stranger to intractable conflict. After helping to bring the survivors together, Cumming informally chaired the meeting of around 10 survivors and a few of their significant others. Some were strangers, some were acquaintances, and as they sat around a foldout plastic table in that sterile, carpeted conference room, it was unclear if they would be anything more.
To begin, Cumming opened the floor to anyone who wanted to talk. “I thought two or three people were going to want to share,” he says. “I was stunned that every single person wanted to share their stories with each other.”
They’d all felt the same shame and humiliation. The same guilt. Many had suffered through depression, sleeping trouble, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. They had divorces and relationship issues, trusting not enough, too much, or vacillating between the two. They blamed themselves, even though they knew logically it wasn’t their fault, and they’d felt alone — a feeling that evaporated more with each story told, a feeling they no longer had to claim or feel defined by.
It was a “remarkable experience,” says S., a group member who attended Horace Mann in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Having a flesh-and-blood person in front of you who has suffered the same thing made one realize that he wasn’t alone in a way that had never previously been real and visceral.”
“So much had been so suppressed and secretive for so many years, to actually sit in a room and look across the table at other survivors was amazing,” says Bowen.
At the end of the meeting, one attendee quoted lyrics from Horace Mann’s alma mater which now had new resonance: “We were strangers met in friendship, now we’re kin to one and all.”
The group became a support system as more survivors emerged over the summer. It also became the foundation for a response to the school. Realizing they weren’t to blame for their abuse allowed the survivors to feel bolder, to realize, as S. says, “We had the right — the moral right — to demand something of the school.”
But what? The New York judicial system’s response as a whole to cases of this nature has historically not been in the victims’ favor. “They completely throw out a lot of very strong legal principles in order to protect the status quo, and in order to protect these institutions who have engaged in really heinous conduct,” says Kevin Mulhearn, the rare lawyer to argue his way through the state’s deeply restrictive statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases (and to write the book on the issue). The survivors agreed they would write a formal letter. In the week following the meeting, Cumming composed a first draft, hammering out revisions with a handful of members before clearing it with the rest via email. There were differences — “a very cordial disagreement” as S. recalls — regarding whether or not lawyers should be retained and whether seeking financial compensation or a formal apology should be the primary objective.
“We were pretty united on letters to the school,” remembers Bowen, “but the whole question of how public are we going to be? Are we going try to take legal action? Are we gonna hire a lawyer? There was a lot of disagreement, confusion, even within ourselves.” Bowen, a calm, gentle-voiced 58-year-old with a broad smile and a shock of white hair, feels great affection for the school despite his abuse. “There was a magic about the place,” he remembers. His ties there run deep: His mother was a teacher and administrator, and four of his siblings attended. But that summer as the arguments over how to respond continued and the anger at the institution he loved continued to boil, he felt worn down. “I got absolutely overwhelmed.”
But moreover, for the first time since suffering this trauma, they were indeed a they — emboldened, perhaps even hopeful, despite the long odds of real restitution.
That letter, which would be the first of four, was addressed to Headmaster Tom Kelly, the board of trustees, and the Horace Mann community. The response that mattered most was that of Steve Friedman, an enormously wealthy hedge fund manager and chair of the board of trustees. “I didn’t realize how implacably hostile Steve Friedman would be to us,” says Cumming. “We initially gave it only privately to the trustees, because we hoped it would open a positive, constructive dialogue.” The letter listed a number of potential remedies, including an apology, an independent investigation, and funds set aside for therapy and support.
Tom Kelly personally delivered the letter to the board of trustees at a meeting on June 21, 2012.
For six weeks, there was no response. “They went into hiding, like they were the College of Cardinals or something,” remembers a survivor with the initial H., “and they would let us know when the smoke came out of the Sistine Chapel.” In that time the group grew to around 30 members who talked every few weeks via conference calls.
Since their prep school days, some had become professionals — lawyers and therapists. Others lived on the fringes, at odds with the image of an institution that was the alma mater of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, historical writer Robert Caro, and real estate scion Seymour Durst, and where a number of trustees had connections to finance wealth in the billions. “There were a number of people in the group who literally did not have enough money to put food on the table,” says Cumming, adding that some of the more well-off among them helped pay for their groceries.
While the board of trustees was silent, Kelly wasn’t. The headmaster continued to speak with Cumming about the issues presented in the letter, and even directed survivors to join the support group and seek legal redress. In his communications with them, Kelly, (whose PR firm said was not available to be interviewed for this story) could be incredibly empathetic. To a letter from Seiger recounting his abuse, Kelly replied, “I can’t tell you how disturbed I am by your email. I’m worried about you, and we’ve never met.”
“He did give us all the sympathy in the world,” says Cumming, “but he wasn’t authorized to take action on most of the things that mattered to us.” While Kelly could make some basic concessions, like removing the names of known offenders and enablers from places of honor on campus like Clark Field — named after former Headmaster R. Inslee Clark Jr., whom Seiger named as one of his abusers — he couldn’t guarantee an investigation, or push the school to apologize or admit any wrongdoing.
“Dr. Kelly wants everybody to like him,” says S. He says talks between Cumming and Kelly created “expectations that were built up and then shattered,” and that as July rolled by without a response, a “progressive cynicism and disappointment” grew within the survivors group.
“I think we really felt all the same feelings that summer of both humiliation and anger that you feel when you’re sexually abused,” remembers Cumming. “But there was one difference, and that is that we had each other.”
Toward the end of July, the survivors got word the school was ready to talk, but even that potential victory became an opportunity for insult. Instead of learning of the meeting through Friedman or Kelly — who had promised to communicate to the survivors first and directly — Cumming and others say they heard about it through a reporter. Around this time, Kelly informed Cumming that Horace Mann’s lawyers wanted to speak with survivors, and the group should seek counsel. “I had personally been saying, ‘Let’s not hire lawyers because I’m afraid that will make it adversarial, and I’m afraid that will make it be all about money,’” says Cumming, “I was right about that.”
With the survivors’ first meeting with the board of trustees looming, they scrambled to lawyer up. After one survivor signed with Gloria Allred, others followed in quick succession — maybe too quick for some who were finding the natural time crunch of a complicated legal procedure a test for nerves that had been frayed over decades. Cumming was among the last to sign on, ultimately figuring Allred “would be a dangerous and scary adversary in any adversarial proceeding.” Going up against Horace Mann’s administration, represented by the heavyweight law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel, they’d need someone formidable.
By 2012, Gloria Allred had been in the spotlight for decades as an outspoken advocate for high-profile victims — in the courtroom but, just as often, in press conferences and TV interviews. In going with Allred, 25 survivors banked on her ability to make people listen. Six more would sign with Paul Mones, Kevin Mulhearn, and Michael Dowd, and one would sign with victim rights lawyer Rosemarie Arnold.
Before survivors and their lawyers would meet with Horace Mann, members of the board of trustees spent August attempting a bit of damage control with the launch of Hilltop Cares, a nonprofit that raised funds to pay for the therapy sessions of survivors. But with no official connection to the school, it couldn’t satisfy the survivors’ demands for atonement.
On Aug. 15, the first meeting between survivors and the administration took place at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. There Friedman laid down the ground rules: Any communication from the survivors to the press and the dialogue would end. Two months after news of their abuse stirred a public uproar, they would have to be quiet. Bowen recalls Friedman was looking for a “one and done,” a deal that would stop any complaints into the future. He claimed the survivors represented a completely different school from the one he led, a school that no longer existed. Bowen remembers Allred responding forcefully: “She got up there and said it’s the same school, it’s the same community, and these people are part of that community.”
The next day, Friedman appeared before Horace Mann’s alumni council, a fundraising group with close ties to the board, and attempted to address the concerns of the alumni community. Friedman claimed an independent investigation would be too costly, it wouldn’t have subpoena power, and, in any case, many of the accused were dead. (Of the 22 known abusers, nine were dead by the summer of 2012, according to the HMAC.) They also flagged the risks involved in issuing a formal apology, with Kelly citing what had happened at the Massachusetts private school Buckingham, Browne & Nichols just four years earlier. In 2008, the school released a letter apologizing for how it handled a teacher accused of sexually inappropriate conduct in the 1980s. According to the HMAC report, Kelly heard that “very apology opened up the floodgates on litigation and liability,” and a civil suit emerged soon after. Nonetheless, the alumni council later voted in favor of an independent investigation. It notified the board of trustees and never heard back.
A trial would be costly and difficult. The statute of limitations for sex abuse in New York gives survivors who were abused as children only until the age of 23 to file civil claims against an abuser, and until the age of 21 to file against a third party, such as a school. A mediation would be quicker than a lawsuit and prevent attention-shy survivors from having to testify in public, and the school from having to air its dirty laundry.
“Sexual abuse survivors, even those whose abuse is decades past, are ill-suited to withstand the stress of a protracted, high-profile legal case, particularly against the very institution that betrayed them,” says Carly Smith, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Oregon. She studies “institutional betrayal,” a concept that examines what happens when an institution someone depends on, like a school or the military, fails to protect those in its care. Smith sought data from Horace Mann survivors and other alumni for her research, and says the scandal is “just a blazingly clear example” of this behavior. “Imagine if an incest survivor’s case was tried before a jury of their family members. Or if the surviving victims of a drunken driver had to win their case by winning a road race. The way to justice is essentially via the same route as the harm.”
Still, alumni activists at HMAC, who went on to help create the recent report on abuse, worried a settlement would forfeit the survivors their moral leverage. In a letter to the survivors in August 2012, former student and member of HMAC Robert Boynton, who directs New York University’s literary reporting program wrote, “My intuition tells me that [board of trustees Chairman Steve] Friedman’s strategy is to drive a wedge between those who want an investigation and those who are primarily (and understandably) concerned with compensation.” He asked that survivors consider their settlement require an independent investigation. “Not as an ‘additional’ demand, but as a pre-condition for any settlement.”
When Allred invited Seiger to meet her at the upscale Palace Hotel bar one evening to officially introduce herself, he expressed his own misgivings. He remembers they went over his long history of abuse and her game plan late into the night. Point blank, he told her he didn’t like her media strategy. He said, “You should have a press conference now, like tomorrow, and everyone in the world should hear … every goddamned day what the school did.” But, he says, Allred wanted to hold off — she thought hosting a press conference would be most effective as a threat, something to keep in her back pocket in case Horace Mann didn’t keep the mediation on track. Toward the end of the meeting, she told him the kind of legal battle they were entering is like a war, and that Seiger seemed to her as the type of person who has held back a couple of things for that reason. Seiger then told her about the picture that had been taken of him by Stan Kops, a Horace Mann history teacher who killed himself in 1985. “I want this between you and me,” she said.
“That was really shitty,” says Seiger, “because it cut me off from being really a part of the rest of the group.” A few days later, Allred’s co-counsel Mariann Wang requested Seiger send the photo so the lawyers could have it on file. Seiger consulted with some other survivors about the request, and emailed a version of the photo.
Going up against New York’s statute of limitations is an immense challenge. After a grueling three-year battle that put his practice in jeopardy, Kevin Mulhearn forced another elite New York day school, Poly Prep Country Day School, to settle favorably with his 12 clients, all abused by the school’s football coach Phil Foglietta over a 25-year period. “You get a good judge and a fair judge on a sex abuse case, you’re going to find a way to get around the statute of limitations,” he says. A similar case he represented with students from Yeshiva University High School was thrown out by the judge last year, although he’s appealing it. In part, given the difficulty of taking the Horace Mann case to court, he also went into mediation.
The strategy that Mulhearn used to get Poly Prep to settle despite the statute of limitations involved using a legal theory called equitable estoppel — the school had threatened to expel a student who reported their abuse, which prevented him from filing a suit before the statute of limitations had expired. Seiger, who was passed around between eight faculty members, was threatened into silence with the publication of a pornographic photo taken by one of his abusers. He had entered the school in part based on the sterling reputation of music teacher and known abuser Johannes Somary, and believed he could take a similar case to court. He and others in the group wanted to take Horace Mann to court, and, at the least, push the school to settle on favorable terms. It still might have been a long shot. “I think it’d be very difficult for the victims to bring the action after the statute of limitations has run simply based on equitable estoppel,” says Oscar Chase, an NYU law professor. “The only thing that could help these people would be a new statute [of limitations].”
In November 2012, just as the story was starting to quiet down in the media, Law & Order: SVU aired an episode, “Lessons Learned,” based on the Horace Mann abuse scandal. The protagonist, an apparent composite of survivors group organizers Ed Bowen and Joseph Cumming, resembles Cumming, from his glasses to his stubble. As Ice-T and Mariska Hargitay lead the case toward its conclusion, the Steve Friedman character realizes the error of his ways and calls a meeting of the fictional school’s board where he announces an independent investigation and apologizes. When Cumming and his wife heard those words, they broke down in tears. “Those were the words I have longed to hear,” he says, his voice breaking.
In March 2013, survivors flew in from across the country for the two-week mediation in the high-rise Manhattan offices of Schulte Roth & Zabel. It began with presentations from the school and the survivors’ lawyers. Allred’s was emotional, featuring pictures of her clients as children. For their part, the school’s attorneys explained that the statute of limitations would make it impossible for survivors to win in court, so they should take what they could get. Arnold, whose single client was abused in part in New Jersey, where the statute of limitations are more forgiving than in New York, knew that if the school didn’t give her favorable terms, she’d take her case to court.
“It really was just a farce,” Arnold says.
The mediation was led by Paul Finn from the private firm Commonwealth Mediation. He had worked before with Paul Mones, one of the lawyers Mulhearn was working with. S. describes the cultivated persona of Finn as “the South Boston boy who talks truth to power on behalf of the downtrodden.” (Finn did not respond to request for comment other than to clarify that is he is from Hyde Park, not South Boston.) Arnold says the case was “out of his league,” not least of all because it was a complicated case with no admission of guilt from one party, and statute of limitations issues for the other.
During the first half of the two-week mediation, the survivors went one by one to recount their histories while their compatriots waited in another conference room, munching bland sandwiches and drinking warm Perrier. The testimonies were to be secret and destroyed after the mediation, and those who settled signed nondisclosure agreements.
“There was hardly any back-and-forth,” remembers Bowen. “There was nothing but waiting.”
For some, giving a statement was somewhat cathartic. For others, it was retraumatizing: Before the lawyers representing the same powerful institution that abused them, survivors had to finely detail the worst events of their lives, interrupted only by the scratch of a ballpoint across a legal pad when an opposing lawyer thought they’d found a hole in a story.
“The mediation was an hour with Steve Friedman not moving a single muscle in his face,” says M., a female survivor who attended Horace Mann in the ‘80s, which was “totally humiliating.”
When Seiger finished his statement, where he was ambushed with the photo, he says he received the same message everyone did from Finn — commending him on his bravery, telling him what a good job he did. Finn was trying to tell him how impressive it was that he had overcome so much abuse and blurted out, “I just want you to know you are the most and worst abused boy.” Today “the most abused boy” is a title that doesn’t bother him — his abuse was not his fault — so why shouldn’t he embrace it? Still, says Seiger ruefully, “I can assure you it was not at all comforting.”
Another part of the mediation’s trauma came through inflated expectations. “They were so confident of their abilities,” remembers Seiger of his lawyers, they brought in a specialist on structured settlements to help the survivors plan for the long term with the bonanzas coming their way. “At that point we had absolutely no reason to doubt them,” says Seiger.
In the second week, when offers from Horace Mann started trickling in, they were fractions of what Allred’s team asked. (The specific amounts survivors received remain secret but reportedly they were negotiated up to between $20,000 and $350,000.) The recent report on abuse quotes Horace Mann attorney Howard Epstein explaining in later legal filings the school’s desire for secrecy; releasing settlement numbers would give survivors coming forward in the future “an unfair negotiating advantage.”
Arnold rejected the settlement and filed her client’s case in New Jersey. A number of Allred’s clients contacted Arnold to see if she would represent them, but it was too late. Even worse, after eight months in which Horace Mann had time to consider the survivors’ nonmonetary demands, the school’s lawyers informed Allred and the other survivors’ attorneys that they were not authorized to discuss them. A small group including Cumming held out on settling until nonmonetary concerns were addressed.
“No question in my mind we should have walked out of that mediation,” says S., “but it was never on the table to do so.” Getting another lawyer to represent them would have been a challenge. “Having signed up with her and gone this far, we had no assurance we could get anyone to take over the case,” says S. Some of Allred’s clients received settlements so low that after her fees, they didn’t have much left.
“People were disempowered,” says S. “They lost control. A bunch of adult figures took advantage of them again.”
According to the HMAC, the total compensation Horace Mann survivors received is estimated to be around $4.2 million, and the school is estimated to have spent more than half that on legal fees. A lawsuit with its insurer over the settlement reported that $1.05 million of that compensation went to two survivors, which would leave just over $3 million to split between 28 survivors (two ultimately chose not to settle). As a point of comparison, consider the recent case in California of a single public school teacher who abused students over decades: The 82 survivors in the case received nearly $140 million total.
A month after the mediation, Allred called a press conference to put pressure on the school to conduct an independent investigation, telling those assembled, “We want to make sure that Horace Mann and other schools will never again let this happen to innocent and vulnerable children in their care.” That April, the Bronx District Attorney’s Office completed their investigation saying they could not bring any charges because of the statute of limitations.
The school published a statement in May as well, on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend. It contains an apology “for the harm that was caused by the teachers and administrators who abused anyone during their years at Horace Mann School,” but still refers to some of the abuse as “alleged,” a term that, while legally accurate (the accusations haven’t been proven in court), infuriated survivors. “We felt that we had come to a point where the abuse was so extensive and corroborated by so many people that it was an offense to call it alleged,” says Bowen. “It’s not alleged; it’s fact.”
But there was more: The letter, signed by Tom Kelly and Steve Friedman, also stated that the school would not commission an independent investigation, but would instead release an “independent summary” of the testimony from the mediation prepared by Finn. These would include statements that the survivors claim they were told were going to be kept secret and destroyed.
“We couldn’t believe it,” says Cumming. “We don’t need an investigation into what happened to us, we know what happened to us!” From the first survivors’ letter, it was clear the survivors were asking for information about the inner workings of the administration that allowed abuse to persist.
In response, Allred put out a press release disputing the school’s claims, saying that releasing a summary of the confidential abuse accounts from the mediation would be “a betrayal.” “It is not what the survivors asked for or wanted. It is contrary to the representations and agreements made to and with the survivors.”
What’s more, she described reaching out to Finn — whom the school claimed would be writing the summary — and hearing back from him, “We have not been hired to do anything.” Allred called Horace Mann’s statement about the summary “a callous attempt to deflect attention from the fact that Horace Mann is continuing to refuse to conduct an independent investigation.” Horace Mann eventually responded that it would not release the summary without the survivors’ permission.
The weekend Horace Mann released its statement, Cumming was informed that he had 48 hours to decide whether to settle. He was heading on vacation with his family for Memorial Day, which was especially important to him as a veteran, and he asked for more time. The school’s attorney said no — deadlines like this are standard in settlements. Still, it felt personal to Cumming. “I think that was really, really offensive,” he says. He spent his holiday weekend ping-ponging on the phone between his lawyers, Horace Mann’s lawyers, and some of the other holdouts.
In the end, he settled. He hoped he’d never have to deal with lawyers again, and his efforts for justice going forward would not be stained by any hint of monetary motive.
Could Allred and her team have done more? Among those she represented, there’s disagreement. The spectrum of opinion seems to be defined by those who saw a flicker of hope in pushing the case further, and those who saw no hope in it at all. “No one forced anybody to settle there,” says H. “I don’t think they gave any improper advice.” S., on the other hand, thinks the case was worth fighting, legal degree of difficulty be damned: “It was a good enough case that it should have been pursued.”
“As far as I’m concerned they handled the case the best they could,” says Bowen. “We’re in a horrible case, can’t sue, statute of limitations, no legal standing — how do you manage all that?”
When BuzzFeed News reached out to Allred and her co-counsels Wang and Nathan Goldberg, they declined to comment. Allred referred to her press statements following the mediation in April and May of 2013, adding, “We are precluded as a matter of law from responding to any statements about our representation, events leading up to the mediation, what occurred at the mediation, or the results of the mediation. Our firms have continued — and will continue — to fight on behalf of childhood sex abuse survivors and rape survivors. Our legal team is very proud of the work and the results that we have obtained for our courageous clients on all of our cases, including the Horace Mann matter.”
“Gloria’s team was a bunch of excellent lawyers,” says Kevin Mulhearn. “It’s not a matter of the lawyers not being up to the task, it’s just the dynamics were very difficult.”
There are examples of prep schools that dealt with abuse scandals without fostering the animosity that Horace Mann did. Massachusetts’s Deerfield Academy responded to revelations of abuse in 2013 with an apology and independent investigation, and other schools have, at the least, struck conciliatory tones and apologized forthrightly. But the scope of those scandals was nowhere near that of Horace Mann’s, and they also were not in the state of New York.
“They’ve handled things really badly,” says Alan Ampolsk, a Horace Mann alum and public relations professional. “It’s almost an object lesson in how not to do it.” He offered to help Tom Kelly with communications in the summer of 2012 but was rebuffed, and occasionally ended up assisting survivors. He says the school “set the needs of the current students and the current parents in opposition to the survivors’ demands,” creating an unnecessary conflict. “You’re basically turning raped children into attackers,” Ampolsk says. “It’s really unconscionable; it’s also bad practice. Because the more you exacerbate conflict, the longer the story lasts.”
And it has. The faucet drip of news since the settlement includes a number of trustees resigning in the summer of 2013 reportedly due to Friedman’s approach toward the survivors, the continued expression of dissatisfaction with the school by alumni, and one well-meaning but tone-deaf response from a student. The school faced a protracted legal battle with its insurers over who should cover the costs of two of the settlements, with insurers claiming Horace Mann was still hiding the basic facts about the abuse and that they could have won the case in court. School activists have pushed for legislation to change New York’s statute of limitations as well.
Last March, Friedman announced his departure from the board of trustees. Ticking off his and Kelly’s successes, he references the work done “to help heal the wounds in our community created decades ago.” In an interview with Horace Mann’s school paper, he is paraphrased describing how he had to balance the needs of current students with those who suffered sexual abuse and reported their accounts later, seeming to elide the many reports of abuse the administration ignored over decades. His exit is something many have wished for, but it will take time to see if his replacement Michael Colacino will change course.
The school’s internal conflict stands in contradiction to its public success. In 2014 an education review site named Horace Mann the best private school in the New York City area, and the fourth best nationally.
Last December, Joseph Cumming heard a loud knock on his door in New Haven, Connecticut. At the door he was greeted by an armed state marshal, delivering a subpoena. Horace Mann’s lawyers were dragging him back into the legal battle he hoped to be free of when he settled. The subpoena demanded he divulge confidential information on survivors, some covered by the clergy penitent privilege, for the outstanding lawsuit in New Jersey being represented by Rosemarie Arnold. He had two weeks to appear. He spent his holidays trying to find a pro bono lawyer and “wondering whether I was going to jail in January if I was unable or did not feel at liberty to hand over everything that Horace Mann’s attorneys commanded.” Thinking about it now, his hands begin to shake.
In the end Cumming didn’t have to divulge anything — Arnold’s case settled in April of this year, before the case entered the evidentiary discovery phase. The Wall Street Journal reported she had sought $10 to 15 million. Even if the survivor won half of the low end of what Arnold was seeking, it would be more than what all of Allred’s clients received combined. Allred has moved on to representing women who survived assault at the hands of Bill Cosby. Like Arnold, she is attempting to bring a case in New Jersey.
The rancor that has taken root in the Horace Mann community was on display this April, when Daniel Gruber, a Horace Mann alum, was arrested for making threats against Headmaster Tom Kelly and Steve Friedman. Though court documents don’t address whether Gruber was involved in the mediation, the attorney prosecuting him said in court the deals the school made with survivors partly motivated him. Gruber’s sister told the Riverdale Press she could neither confirm nor deny if he was abused at the school.
After all they endured, a number of survivors remain optimistic that in time, the school will do the right thing. There is little positive that anyone has to say about the ordeal.
The school has “just proven that money can buy anything you need,” says M., a member of the survivors group. For her, the board of trustees’ treatment of survivors is a reflection of Wall Street exceptionalism. “Horace Mann has always been about the winners, but life is not necessarily about winning.” Despite the suffering they endured, Bowen believes the survivors’ efforts were worthwhile. “I feel proud and happy about my role in it,” he says. Still, his sense of resolution is imperfect. “I still feel like something is missing,” he says. Slightly perplexed, looking off, he tries to explain: “We all came smashed together, had these intense few months, and then we all sort of split apart again.”
For Seiger, the money hasn’t gone far. “The amount they gave me financially hurt me more than it helped me,” he says. He was on disability and had to pay a significant amount to Medicare to cover a series of stomach surgeries from eight years ago since he no longer qualified. “Any healing that came from it,” says Seiger, “is still only from having been part of the survivors group.”
Last May, he returned to Horace Mann to play a benefit concert for Hilltop Cares. It was his first concert there as an adult, and the first time he’d seen the campus in 36 years. His group kept it light, playing through a couple Louis Armstrong numbers, “What a Wonderful World,” and “I Still Get Jealous,” before getting into the standard “Everything Happens to Me,” which Seiger wryly notes has “always been my theme song.”
“It felt good to be there on my own terms,” he says, but seeing other survivors and alumni at the show made him realize again the toll of his abuse. “Friendships that I could have had over these 36 years,” he says. “It stole all this time.”