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Posted at 11:36 AM ET, 11/18/2011

A prep school scandal eerily similar to Penn State

This post was written by three 1971 graduates of Poly Prep, a prestigious private school in Brooklyn. Bernard Bauer is a San Francisco-based psychologist. Harry Hellenbrand is the provost of California State University, Northridge. Kenneth Stern is an attorney, author and expert on antisemitism. The story they tell has special resonance today as Penn State grapples with a major sex abuse scandal, and other such cases at different schools are coming to light.

By Bernard Bauer, Harry Hellenbrand and Kenneth Stern

A football coach sexually abuses boys in his charge. Top administrators turn a blind eye. The abuser goes on to victimize more boys and ruin more lives.

 Penn State? No, Poly Prep in Brooklyn, our high school alma mater.

 According to a federal RICO suit now in the courts, Phil Foglietta, the school’s revered head football coach from 1966 to 1991, sexually abused “dozens if not hundreds” of boys during his tenure. The parallels with Penn State are eerily similar:

 *A graduate assistant says he caught Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State coach, in the act of sexually assaulting a boy in a shower. According to the grand jury report, the graduate assistant reported the crime to head coach Joe Paterno, who then alerted other school officials, but the abuse was never investigated. Poly Prep’s then-athletic director walked in on Foglietta abusing a boy in the locker room showers, according to the suit. No investigation ever occurred.

 *Top Penn State administrators allegedly covered up repeated allegations of Sandusky’s abuse for years. Top Poly Prep officials are accused of doing the same.

 *Despite the reports of abuse, Sandusky was given special treatment by Penn State even after he retired: access to its athletic facilities and an office in its football headquarters. According to the Poly Prep lawsuit, Foglietta was also given kid-glove treatment, despite years of reports of his preying on children. In 1991, the school feted him with a lavish retirement dinner. When he died in 1998, it held a memorial service and established a scholarship in his honor.

Admirably, Penn State has fired its president and football coach. Poly Prep, meanwhile, has let its victims dangle in limbo for decades.

 The school claims it has thoroughly investigated the abuse. But in June, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl L. Pollak, the federal judge overseeing the case, ruled that the school had “negligently, at best” allowed crucial evidence to be destroyed.

 Forty-five years after the abuse began, the victims are still waiting for justice.

 The grip that Foglietta had on the school is hard to overstate. He was the undisputed alpha male who propelled the football team to a long string of championship seasons. And he was an important source of revenue from proud alumni. In fact, when William Williams, the head of the school from 1970 to 2000, was deposed last year, he testified that he did not fire Foglietta because he was “worried ... about how alumni might react” and about a lawsuit from Foglietta, according to Judge Pollak’s ruling. 

The RICO suit contends that Poly Prep officials first learned of the alleged sexual abuse in 1966 from one of the early victims, William Jackson, and his parents. After what the suit calls “a sham investigation,” the school turned its guns on the boy, threatening “severe consequences” if he persisted in accusing the coach, the suit says. Foglietta skated away. Two years later, Jackson was expelled for fighting. His parents came to disbelieve his claims of abuse, and “both died emotionally estranged from their son,” according to the suit. Jackson has suffered decades of depression and substance abuse; in 2004, the suit says, he tried to kill himself.

 Another early victim was a friend of ours at the time, David Hiltbrand, who has written openly about his ordeal. Hiltbrand was a brilliant boy, a gifted athlete and a violinist. But after being subjected to sexual abuse on “several” occasions by Foglietta – on school grounds and at Foglietta’s apartment, according to the lawsuit –  David turned sullen and angry. He  drifted into alcoholism and heroin addiction in his twenties before cleaning up and becoming a well-known journalist and columnist in Philadelphia.

In 1991, Hiltbrand convinced school officials that Foglietta was a serial abuser, and the coach’s contract was not renewed. Publicly, however, the school announced that Foglietta had decided to retire — and then threw him a farewell dinner at the New York Athletic Club to which it sold tickets.

 Eleven more years would pass until the school finally admitted in a letter to parents and alumni that there had been “credible allegations” of sexual abuse by “a faculty member/coach, who is now deceased.”

 The school contends that it took appropriate action at every step, and in a 2009 alumni letter responding to the RICO lawsuit, said it “categorically denies” claims of a conspiracy or cover-up to prevent the abuse from coming to light.

To this day, not one of the school officials who were privy to the abuse allegations has been brought to account. Not one has resigned or been fired. And not one penny has been paid to compensate any of the victims.

There is no expiration date for trauma. Many of our schoolmates continue to suffer from the abuse decades ago. Some desperately need psychiatric treatment they can’t afford. Others, “John Does” in the lawsuit, are still in the shadows, struggling to find the courage to go public with what befell them.

 Some of the Poly Prep victims are nearing 60. How much longer will the school stall until, like Penn State, it faces the facts, puts the well-being of its alumni before its brand, and demonstrates that, finally, it considers child rape a serious crime? Our graying schoolmates have waited long enough.

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By  |  11:36 AM ET, 11/18/2011

 
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