Boarding schools

Some say sex abuse was rampant at British boarding schools
By Sarah Lyall
New York Times, October 11, 2004

LONDON -- Tom Perry had not seen his school-age friend for about 35 years when he called him out of the blue with an urgent question about the boarding school they attended together: "Just as a matter of interest," he said, "did you like the place?"

It was a deliberate provocation.

"Bloody hell, Tom, the conversation bowls happily along and then you ask me a question like that," Perry recalled his friend protesting. But Perry, a businessman who turned 50 this year, invited him over to continue the conversation.

"There's no point in pratting about," Perry told him. "I must tell you that when I was at Caldicott, I was sexually abused."

So began a long process of facing up to the past for Perry, his friend, and at least half a dozen other men who say they were molested by teachers at the Caldicott School, in Buckinghamshire, between 1964 and 1970.

But it has been a bumpy and frustrating road. While one of the teachers pleaded guilty to abuse in 2003, the case against another, the school's former headmaster, was thrown out of court by a skeptical judge who said the events had happened so long ago as to make a fair trial impossible.

The judge's apparent lack of sympathy, the former students say, is of a piece with the general attitude of the British establishment, still disproportionately made up of men of a certain age and class who went to prep schools like Caldicott. Such men may be sympathetic when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct in institutions like the Catholic Church, but acknowledging the abuse that took place at many boarding schools not so long ago is another matter altogether.

"Still," Perry said, "taught me a thing or two about life."

The common view, many former students say, is that if it happened, you are not expected to whine about it.

But for many former students, it seems, memories and anger resurface near middle age, when their own children reach school age. The death of parents also liberates some abuse victims from the often-crippling notion that any attack on their old schools would be seen as criticism of the mothers and fathers who sent them there.

But back in the 1970s, Perry never said anything. Caldicott was a place where loyalty to the school was emphasized above all else, where a culture of secrecy and shame prevailed and where emotional distress was something to be quelled, not indulged.

James Foucar, secretary of an interest group called the Association of Boarding School Survivors, said that when he told his own father, back in the 1970s, that a teacher was making sexual advances to him, the response was, "So what?"

"My dad's view is why should you make a fuss -- it's commonplace and nobody spoke about it," Foucar said. "He said that one of his teachers had his hands permanently down my father's shorts so what was I complaining about?"

...[T]hey were unregulated, run in many cases as private idiosyncratic fiefs. Punishments were meted out for the slimmest of reasons, often at the whim of sadistic teachers...

Many former students say they feel that the trouble lies with boarding school in general, never mind the era.

But British boarding schools have changed drastically in the last 15 years or so.

In the old days, they were unregulated, run in many cases as private idiosyncratic fiefs. Punishments were meted out for the slimmest of reasons, often at the whim of sadistic teachers; and, according to former students and teachers, many schools were suffused by an undercurrent of sexuality.

A number of former boarding school students, for instance, describe how when they lined up en masse, naked, for baths or showers -- always cold, according to the practices of the time -- certain teachers would always seem to appear to watch.

A former student at a school that is now defunct described rules and behavior that seem bizarre, even Dickensian. Among other things, he said, the headmaster used a billiard cue to beat students, then required them to shake his hand and thank him.

People his age generally do not want to discuss what happened, or deflect their discomfort with bluster and black humor, said the former student, now a 47-year-old businessman, who spoke on condition that he not be identified.

"The feeling is, `Well, we're not nutty as a fruitcake, so it couldn't have done us much harm,'" he said. "But a lot of people of my generation are quite complicated sexually, and I think it comes from their experience at prep school."

Much of the worst excess of the past has been swept away by new regulations, starting with the 1989 Children Act, which laid out the state's responsibility to young people. Corporal punishment in private schools was outlawed in 1999. Schools now conduct mandatory background checks on staff members. The number of Childline, a crisis hotline, is posted in school hallways.

"The whole punishment system has changed beyond recognition," said Adrian Underwood, director of the Boarding Schools Association in Britain. "Now it's inside the normal, civilized norms of society."

Simon Doggart, the current headmaster of Caldicott, said the school was not what it had once been. "We make children very aware of what their rights are and who they should talk to if they're unhappy."

This is little comfort to Tom Perry, who was sent to Caldicott at the age of 8 in 1963 and who says the sexual attentions by its then-headmaster, Peter Wright, began when he was 12 and lonely, missing the warmth of family life and craving intimacy and kindness. "My first sexual kiss was from Peter Wright," he said. "My first sexual experiences were with him."

It was not until decades later that Perry, wracked by depression, sought psychiatric help. He also quickly located a half-dozen other former students who, like him, had lived with feelings of shame and complicity all those years.

Through his lawyer, Andrew Bright, Wright declined to be interviewed. In 2003, on the basis of statements by Perry and four other former students, Wright was indicted on 13 counts of indecent assaults and three counts of gross indecency with a child. But last year a judge, Roger Connor, stayed the case and set Wright, then 73, free.

"The long delay," Connor said, "has clearly made it significantly more difficult for the defendant to put forward his defense."

Although some former teachers have been convicted in similar circumstances, many judges seem unsympathetic, even hostile, to the issue.

In a remarkably similar case, a 58-year-old former teacher at the Cothill School in Oxfordshire was charged recently with abusing a number of boys in the 1970s. But the judge, Julian Hall, declared earlier this year that "this is the stalest case I have been asked to try" and threw it out.

"I think the best thing that should happen to people who behave in this way," Hall told Oxford Crown Court, speaking of the former teacher, Jeremy Malim, "is that they should get a very brisk elbow in the ribs at the time or be rejected."

Most of the goings-on at Caldicott were known but never spoken about, but a sexual scandal did erupt there in 1973, when a teacher named Martin Carson was caught sodomizing a 12-year-old boy, Alastair Rolfe.

The abuse had gone on for a year, and "during that time, virtually everything happened," Rolfe, now 43, a writer and editor, said in an interview.

Spurred by news of the case against Wright, Rolfe and others came forward, and Carson pleaded guilty to sodomy, indecent assault and possessing indecent images of children. In 2003, he was sentenced to two years in jail. He was released after a year.

In 1973, though, there was a rush to cover everything up. Carson was dismissed and eventually got a job at another school.

At home, Rolfe said, "it was always referred to as `an incident' like someone tripping over a curbstone." He was sent immediately back to school and did not discuss the subject again for 30 years when, troubled by issues with his own children, he began seeing a therapist.

"I don't want to sound self-pitying," he said, "but I'd probably say it affects all aspects of my life."

That is also true of Mark Winter, a third man who says he was abused at Caldicott by yet another teacher and who has gone to the police with his allegations. Winter, now a 54-year-old journalist, says he was 11 when the teacher took him into a room and began more than a year of regular abuse.

"I wandered, completely traumatized, out of the room," Winter said in an interview, recalling how he was then spotted by the school matron, a sort of nurse-and-housekeeper. "She said, `I know what you've been doing, you dirty boy.'"

Some time later, Winter confided in a schoolmate. "I told him I was a sexual partner" of the teacher, Winter said. "He looked at me and said, `Who wasn't?'"

Copyright 2004 New York Times News Service