On Saturday, survivors of sexual abuse at St. Paul's School gathered for the first time on campus for an apology that some called a first step and others a missed opportunity.
Around 60 people - including alumni, the interim and incoming rectors, and 22 trustees - attended “A Service of Repentance toward Healing: Witness, Lament, and Apology for Abuse at St. Paul’s School,” organized in part by Reverend Valerie Webster, class of ‘76.
Webster says she was molested as a student by a St. Paul's teacher, and that when she spoke up, the rector blamed her rather than investigate the incident. Recent lawsuits and investigations into sexual abuse by over 15 teachers found a pattern dating back to the 1960’s of the school protecting its reputation above its students.
Now, Webster is part of a group called Alumni Doorways, meant to support others who experienced abuse or bullying at St. Paul’s.
“We want to hear each other’s voices because part of abuse is isolating and shaming people,” she says.
Webster says alumni organized the service because of the school's reluctance to discuss its history.
“The taller the mountain, the longer the shadow,” she says. “Even if it’s very easy to talk about and be bedazzled by St. Paul's light side, it has a shadow side. Talking openly about your shadow side is still uncomfortable to some.”
During the service, school trustees stood up and apologized for abuse. School administrators didn't allow reporters at the event, but afterwards, several attendees told NHPR they felt the apology wasn't enough.
Chester Irons settled a lawsuit earlier this year against St. Paul's for failing to protect him and another student from a known sexual predator in the 1970’s.
He says there are dozens of documented victims of abuse whom trustees should have invited but, by his reckoning, only half a dozen victims showed up for Saturday's service.
“Obviously there’s been an incredible dereliction of duty in terms of inviting those people,” he says. “There should have been a real outreach from the board, and that never happened.”
After the service, alum were invited for a Q&A with top school officials, but no trustees attended, according to several people in attendance.
Irons came to the service with Alexis Johnson, class of ‘76, who says he’s been demanding the school reckon openly with sexual abuse since he joined the school’s sexual harassment task force in the early 2000’s.
“We were told it was just a first step back then,” he says. “How many millions more ‘first steps’ do we need to take before getting to step two?”
Reverend Webster says the Q&A “wasn’t a Kumbaya moment” but that the weekend “was a genuine start of real repentance and possibility for healing.”
After a criminal probe last year, St. Paul's School now has an official on campus from the New Hampshire Attorney General's office, charged with overseeing how the school handles sexual misconduct in the future.