By Gina Bellafante (New York Times)
December 9, 2011
To a distant observer through the years, it would have seemed that the benefits of a private school education in New York had accrued generously to Philip Culhane. The son of a CBS News correspondent, Mr. Culhane, who is now in his mid-40s, grew up in the Cobble Hill neighborhood and from fifth grade on went to Poly Prep, the well-regarded school in Brooklyn where his great-grandfather had gone as well.
From Poly, Mr. Culhane went on to Williams College and then to law school at New York University. Soon after, he arrived at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, where he has been a partner for nine years, operating out of the firm's Hong Kong office and rising to become a leading private equity lawyer in Asia.
Mr. Culhane's, of course, is precisely the sort of trajectory that so many parents, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate their children, have come to expect. In addition to this assumption of success is the quiet belief that privilege is its own inoculation — against the ugly and the unseemly, against the sort of terrible things that one hears about in institutions that lack the philosophy or resources to vet for the best and most caring educators and stewards.
It is conventional wisdom that sexual predators target children who are "vulnerable," and by vulnerability we mean, in large part — whether we care to admit it not — an existence outside the cosseted world of the affluent. In truth, all children are vulnerable in institutions that prize status and reputation above their responsibility to protect their charges.
In a federal lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn two years ago (and again in the public eye via a series of articles in The Daily News), Mr. Culhane and eight other Poly Prep alumni say the school engaged in epic levels of moral and practical mismanagement for decades, in regard to the perversions of a football coach, Philip Foglietta, who died in 1998. Mr. Culhane and the other plaintiffs say Mr. Foglietta repeatedly sexually abused them along with dozens of other students — in cars, locker rooms, houses and apartments, and on squash courts — during his tenure from 1966 to 1991. (Three years ago, a Web site devoted to the charges, White Tower Healing, was created.)
Mr. Culhane told me recently that he was abused by Mr. Foglietta before gym class in fifth and sixth grades. His strategy for ending the attacks was to go to gym class late or not at all.
"Poly was a very athletic-driven school," Mr. Culhane said. "If you went to gym class late, you were punished. But I routinely showed up at gym class late and nothing happened, which says to me that other people knew what was happening." Mr. Culhane said he grew withdrawn and depressed and did not tell anyone what happened until he told a psychiatrist when he was 30.
Mr. Foglietta was never charged with any crimes, and a 2004 civil suit against Poly Prep in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn was dismissed on the ground that too much time had gone by.
With the current case, Mr. Culhane and the other plaintiffs are suing under the provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was originally aimed at dismantling the Mafia but which has over time been used in more expansive ways.
The suit, which seeks tens of millions of dollars in compensation for victims who have struggled with depression and in some cases addiction and job loss, aims to convince the court that Poly Prep Country Day engaged in a conspiracy to deliberately cover up the coach's conduct. Allegations of abuse surfaced in 1966 at a time when the school's headmaster had asked Mr. Foglietta to assist in an investigation of older students sexually abusing younger ones. During that year, one of the current plaintiffs, William Jackson, says he was sexually abused by Mr. Foglietta.
When he and his parents brought the matter to the attention of J. Folwell Scull, the headmaster at the time, and the school's athletic director, Harlow Parker, the suit says, they were told that Mr. Jackson's charges were not credible and that if he continued with his accusations he would face severe consequences. Mr. Jackson developed behavioral problems that led to his expulsion from school; he never attended college. The suit suggests that the cases of student dismissal became horrifically repetitive.
Under the school's current administration, led by the headmaster, David B. Harman, the ripple effects of these allegations have been handled with less than the utmost commitment to sensitivity. In a November letter to the Poly Prep community in response to a posting on the Web site of The Washington Post from three alumni who noted similarities in Poly's situation and Penn State's, Mr. Harman wrote that the comparisons had been made "unfairly and inaccurately."
But at the very least, beyond the obvious likeness in context, there is an unsettling echo between the revelation at Penn State that an assistant coach witnessed Jerry Sandusky abusing a boy in the shower and did not go to the police, and the allegation in the Poly suit, by one of the unnamed plaintiffs, that Mr. Parker saw Mr. Foglietta abusing him in the shower and did nothing.
The school's baseball field was named for Mr. Parker in 1997, 12 years before he died. His son, Thomas H. Parker, dean of admissions at Amherst College, sits on the Poly board.
In the November letter, Mr. Harman also wrote that the school had acted in a "forthright way," and that there had been no misconduct in the handling of the relevant events "over the last decade," which is to say, during Mr. Harman's tenure.
After receiving a settlement demand from an alumnus in 2002, Poly Prep hired a lawyer, Peter Sheridan, to investigate the allegations. In a memorandum and order issued in April of this year, Magistrate Judge Cheryl L. Pollak determined that the school and its lawyers had failed to retain the only notes or documents prepared by their own investigative lawyer. That the school's lawyers failed to instruct Mr. Sheridan to keep the notes "suffices to demonstrate gross negligence," she wrote.
Additionally, in August 2009 when Mr. Culhane wrote Mr. Harman a heartfelt letter, relaying his own allegations and requesting a meeting, Mr. Harman wrote back to him saying, "We are sorry to hear your story," as if Mr. Culhane had detailed a particularly exhausting flight delay.
On Dec. 2, Mr. Harman issued another letter to the Poly community announcing that he had asked Lisa Friel, a former prosecutor, to lead an advisory committee to strengthen the school's approach to sex-abuse prevention.
"The sexual abuse of a child, any child, is appalling and we regret any pain that any of our alumni have suffered," Mr. Harman wrote to me in an e-mail.
In his November letter, he reminded the Poly community that in January 2010 the school immediately dismissed an assistant girl's volleyball coach who had been accused of sexually abusing a student, and reported the allegation to the authorities.
Ms. Friel, former chief of the Sex Crimes division in the Manhattan district attorney's office, resigned from that position in June during a pivotal moment in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case. She is currently a vice president at T&M Protection Resources.
In her role at Poly she has already offended plaintiffs and done little for public relations. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, Ms. Friel, displaying a bizarre "Mad Men" relativism, claimed that: "People had very different understandings of what sexual abuse was in the '60s and '70s and what a pedophile was."
Mr. Culhane told me his first reaction to this comment was rage, "and then disgust."
When I asked Ms. Friel what she meant by this, she replied, via e-mail: "Child sex abuse is a despicable violent crime. Period. The passage of time does not change that."
She is right. The passage of time changes nothing. The issue of child sexual abuse does not belong to history. The repercussions in the lives of the victims are everlasting.