September 14, 2013 The Journal News - The forceful, full-body hugs from a former teacher that she didn’t want and that lasted too long, Ann Hunkins said, started when she was 14 and a freshman at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge in 1980.
He’d appear as she sat at the bus stop or walked across campus and put his arm around her. Or he’d corner her in an alcove under a staircase, pinning her against his body in a long, awkward embrace as she struggled to get free, she said.
In her fear and confusion, the teen never notified authorities. She convinced her mother not to tell the school because she worried she wouldn’t be believed.At the time, other students and staff seemed to think the behavior was acceptable, Hunkins, 47, told The Journal News in an interview Tuesday.
“I wish I had heard somebody say, ‘Oh, he’s a real letch,’ because then I would have just realized maybe this isn’t something that should be happening, maybe my feeling that it’s not OK is correct,” she said.
Hunkins was motivated to open up about her past for the first time by Green Meadow’s aggressive response when similar allegations implicating the same teacher were revealed this summer in a memoir by a former student, author Kate Christensen. Within weeks of the book’s publication, the school identified the teacher, banned him from campus and launched an investigation — a sharp departure from how institutions usually handled allegations of sexual misconduct decades ago.“To heal something, you have to look at it square. You have to look at it openly and honestly,” said Green Meadow co-administrator Eric Silber. “I think we, as a school, can look at our past and learn from it and grow and make sure that this will never happen again.”
Public awareness of sexual abuse — and how institutions deal with allegations — has fundamentally changed since the Catholic Church’s crisis erupted in 2002. Since then, numerous religious and other groups have faced public accusations of abuse and have had to quickly decide how open to be about ugly episodes from the past.
Ongoing revelations about the abuse of minors, both from recent years and the distant past, have rocked the Boy Scouts of America, Pennsylvania State University, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, several Catholic dioceses, the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, the Horace Mann School in Riverdale in the Bronx, pockets of public schools and others.
The Waldorf School’s decisive response to Christensen’s memoir may represent changing social attitudes about sexual misconduct. Experts say that while there have been high-profile cases of organizations resisting change, many groups have revamped their thinking and policies regarding the seriousness of abuse.
“When I talk to people, the big question they ask is ‘Are we responding quickly enough?’ ” said Patrick Boyle, the author of a book about sex abuse in the Boy Scouts. As spokesman for the Forum for Youth Investment in Washington, he talks to youth groups about their policies for investigating abuse.
Boyle said that many groups, including the Boy Scouts, generally respond to allegations much faster than a decade ago.
“The pendulum has swung on how these things are handled, largely because of the publicity and lawsuits,” Boyle said. “Even though you have the Horace Mann case and the Orthodox Jewish groups, most larger groups are erring on the side of caution, to cover themselves. But you can’t say that everyone within an organization responds the right way or that the problem is solved.”David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said that many institutions are now run by people with modern attitudes about the effects of abuse who are not afraid to confront painful issues that were once hushed up.
“Having more women in leadership makes a difference, as they may be more sensitive in handling these episodes, supporting the victims and encouraging other people to come forward,” he said.
Finkelhor noted that the outspoken scientist Richard Dawkins, who says he was abused by a priest when he was a boy, maintained in a recent interview that he wouldn’t condemn “mild pedophilia” from earlier eras.
“Dawkins is 72 and that’s an older-generation, male take on this whole thing,” Finkelhor said. “We have more of an understanding today that a teacher, a mentor, needs a firm, clear-cut, rigid standard about what is permissible and that to take advantage of one’s position will lead to pain and suffering for a lot of kids.”
Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan and one of the nation’s foremost critics of how religious groups handle abuse, said many states are reforming their statutes of limitations to give victims new opportunities to sue abusers and the institutions that protected them. Minnesota and California passed legislation this year and New York is among several states where bills are pending.
“Change is happening, but also the pace of change is quickening,” Hamilton said. “State legislators are more educated. The public is more knowledgeable.”
Fresh scandals continue to revive the same issues in different communities. The Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, for instance, have received unprecedented scrutiny in recent years for covering up abuse and even harassing victims.
Many observers say that longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes was defeated Tuesday, in part, because of his reluctant handling of abuse cases in Orthodox communities.
Shmarya Rosenberg, who tracks Orthodox news on his blog, Failed Messiah, said Ultra-Orthodox communities have not faced the need to confront sexual abuse.
“School administrations and Haredi community activists and leaders still cover up sexual and physical abuse — and they also persecute the victims and their families if those victims and families report the abuse to police,” he said. “But as bad as this problem is, it is made far worse by district attorneys who are beholden to Haredi bloc votes.”