New London man, former classmates speak out about private school molestation

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Editor's note: This version clarifies the alleged abuse that took place at a dinner party.

New London — John Sweeney served as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army, but he says the flashbacks and nightmares he experiences are the result of being sexually assaulted at age 12 by the assistant headmaster of the Fessenden School, a private boys boarding school in Newton, Mass.

Sweeney, 57, sat on a couch at his girlfriend's Crystal Avenue home Tuesday between two fellow "Fessies," Adrian Hooper of Lexington, Ky., and John Parker of Hyde Park, N.Y.

The three men were not friends at Fessenden — Hooper, 64, was there earlier than Sweeney and Parker — but came together to speak out about the culture of abuse at the exclusive school whose alumni include members of the Kennedy family, Secretary of State John Kerry and business tycoon Howard Hughes.

Sweeney and Hooper, who says he was molested by Fessenden's drama director, were featured recently in an article by the Boston Globe's Spotlight investigative team exposing hundreds of cases of sexual abuse at private schools throughout New England.

Parker, 55, who says he was bullied but not sexually assaulted, told of witnessing the rapes of other boys at Fessenden.

He contacted Sweeney after the school sent out a letter on May 5 apologizing to the victims of sexual assault in advance of the Globe story.

Pedophiles, Sweeney says, are attracted to private schools like metal to a magnet, and he suspects there are hundreds of victims in Connecticut, a wealthy state with numerous private schools and boarding school alumni.

"It's so widespread, all across the nation," Sweeney said. "In Connecticut here, we know if we can get the proper exposure and tell our story, more victims will come forward."

Sweeney and Hooper are working with Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has made a career of suing child rapists and the institutions that harbor them.

Portrayed in last year's Academy Award-winning film "Spotlight," Garabedian secured a $10 million settlement for the victims of molestation by Catholic priest John Geoghan and, with other attorneys, obtained an $85 million settlement from the Archdiocese of Boston.

Reached by telephone Tuesday, Garabedian said he has respresented 11 victims from the Fessenden school who say they were sexually abused between 1963 and 1978. The alleged perpetrators include four teachers and one friend of a teacher.

One of the claims has settled, some are pending and others are under investigation, he said. 

"The victims who have come forward at the Fessenden School are approximately 51 to 65 years old," Garabedian said. "They were sexually abused when they were approximately 10 years old to 15 years old. They were sexually abused for years. One has to wonder where the supervisors of these pedophiles were and why they weren't protecting innocent children."

Sweeney and Hooper are not plaintiffs in any pending lawsuits, since the statute of limitations for molestation claims in Massachusetts is age 53.

Sweeney said that during mediation, the school offered him a settlement if he would agree to a nondisclosure clause that would prevent him from talking about the case. He turned it down.

Garabedian confirmed the unsucessful mediation, but said he could not discuss monetary amounts. He said he is investigating whether he can bring a lawsuit claiming the school, which he said was a "nest of pedophiles," knew about the sexual assaults and fraudulently concealed them, resulting in harm to more victims.

Sweeney broke down as he described his sexual abuse but said he wanted to tell the story.

He grew up in Newton, Mass., the son of a surgeon. He said that as soon as he arrived at Fessenden in 1969, Assistant Headmaster Arthur P. Clarridge started grooming him — and charming Sweeney's mother with his Harvard background.

Clarridge took him for rides in his baby blue Corvette, Sweeney said, and once after Sweeney scored a lot of goals for the school's hockey team, Sweeney said he was invited to dine with Clarridge and Headmaster Robert F. Coffin.

Coffin groped him under the table that night, Sweeney said.

Another night, when Sweeney had a cold, Clarridge came to his dorm room and molested him after drugging him with a Vick's nose inhaler containing some type of anasthetic, Sweeney said.

He told his mother the next day, but she didn't believe him, Sweeney said. He went to the headmaster, but Coffin, tapping his pipe in an ashtray, told him, "You've got a vivid imagination, Johnny," Sweeney said.

"Vivid imagination" was a buzzword used by all the complicit adults at the school, Sweeney said.

His sister, on a visit to the school, also witnessed and reported a sexual assault and nothing was done, Sweeney said.

Clarridge and Fessenden English teacher James Dallman were charged in 1977 with paying for sex with young boys at a home in Revere.

Contacted by the Globe about Sweeney's allegations, Clarridge, now 88 and living in Florida, said he never had sex with anybody at Fessenden. Dallman died in 1986.

The school recently removed the name of Coffin, the headmaster at Fessenden from 1967 to 1980, from its ice rink.

In a May 5 letter to alumni, headmaster David B. Stettler wrote that the school had received a total of 17 reports of sexual assault during the 1960s and 1970s, including one from a nonstudent.

Contacted Wednesday by The Day, Ki Perry, director of institutional advancement at Fessenden, issued a statement on behalf of the school.

"We are deeply saddened, and we apologize on behalf of the school to those who were harmed," the statement said. "We hope that you will find that our recent letter to the community speaks for itself and provides additional background and clarity."

"In 2011, The Fessenden School acknowledged and apologized for abuses that took place decades ago and offered counseling to anyone who was harmed. We have acted with compassion and concern for the victims," the letter continued. "The School proactively attempted mediation, and we maintain our hope that the victims and their attorney wish to re-engage in mediation."

Hooper, who attended Fessenden from 1962 to 1964, said the school had a "Lord of the Flies" culture in which bullying was condoned by the faculty.

He described being filmed while he was forced to take part in a sexual ritual with other boys and said he later begged his parents to take him home.

Both Sweeney and Hooper have struggled with substance abuse.

Hooper said he was addicted to heroin throughout the 1980s, then decided "to be a survivor rather than a victim." He now works in substance abuse treatment and prevention, and said some 80 percent of addicts suffered childhood trauma, including sexual molestation.

New London attorney Robert I. Reardon Jr. said his firm has handled 25 to 30 cases involving Connecticut victims of sexual molestation by Catholic priests, private school faculty members and others.

Reardon's firm in 2003 obtained an undisclosed settlement for a Greenwich teen who was molested by Richard Reinhardt, the former dean of the Gunnery School in Washington, Conn.

Reinhardt had abused students over a long period of time at the boarding school, Reardon said, and is serving a 9.5-year prison sentence.

The statute of limitations in Connecticut is age 48 for victims of molestation who want to sue their abusers, Reardon said.

With more public awareness of the issue, people are coming forward at a younger age, sometimes in their 20s, he said.

"We hear of issues with private schools, public schools and clubs," Reardon said. "Unfortunately, too much of this goes on and it really goes on across the board with adults and young children."

Garabedian, the Boston attorney, put it another way: "Wherever children are, pedophiles are," he said. "They are clever and shrewd and sly and they know how to attract a child."

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