From PREP-SCHOOL PREDATORS

The New York Times Magazine Cover Story

June 6, 2012

by Amos Kamil

 

Mr. Somary “was a hero to me, but he was also a monster.”

 

Years before Kops’s death, before Wright’s firing, before Clark’s arrival at Horace Mann, and for many years after, too, Johannes Somary, the head of the arts-and-music department, was a legend on campus. With his wild hair and faraway gaze, a jacket and tie over his pot belly, Somary seemed almost a caricature of a brilliant maestro. The son of a famous Austrian-Swiss banker, he enjoyed a prominent international reputation, having guest-conducted numerous orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic of London and the Vienna Philharmonic. The walls of Pforzheimer Hall at Horace Mann were lined with posters from his concerts.

 

In class, he was strict, shouting in heavily accented English or slamming the piano lid if a rehearsal was not to his liking. Students took the glee club, and him, very seriously. They accompanied him as he strutted across campus, with an old-fashioned briefcase filled with musical scores and batons. They gathered in his office, where, they say, he was more relaxed and funny, and where they could spend their free periods discussing music, doing homework, even sitting on his lap.

 

“He had a formidable arsenal for impressing students,” said E. B., a flushed, avuncular man who attended Horace Mann in the 1970s. “He was fabulously wealthy, had priceless art on his wall, drove a shiny green Jaguar and was a world-famous conductor.” E. B. agreed to tell me his story (though he asked that I identify him only by his initials) at an Italian restaurant outside Lincoln Center. As he spoke, he seemed both nervous and eager, his eyes darting around the room. “He was a hero to me,” he said. “But he was also a monster.”

 

Somary started out by befriending him, then allowing him to call him Hannes, then hiring him for little jobs like baby-sitting in the  Riverdale home where he lived with his wife and three children. It was there on a fall night in 1973, when E. B. was 16, he says, that Somary sat next to him on a couch, unzipped the boy’s pants and started handling his penis. “I wasn’t scared, just stunned,” E. B. said. “The primary emotion was revulsion. I told him to stop, and he did.” But a couple of weeks later, Somary abused him again. “I was such a good victim,” he told me as the meal in front of him grew cold. “Shy, trusting, unsophisticated.” He shook his head slowly.

 

M., another man now in his mid-50s, had a similar experience. He was so anxious about my revealing his identity that he initially said he would speak only through an intermediary. (“M” is a letter in his middle name — the closest he would come to letting me identify him in print.) But sometime near midnight this past January, he called me directly and launched into a rapid-fire account of how Somary, “a manipulator par excellence,” groomed him for victimization. And how, one night, Somary suggested they take a drive. Somary parked in a lot near the club where the two had spent many hours playing tennis together. “He then pulled me close to his chest,” M. said. “I’m thinking: This is weird. Uncomfortable. Then he starts kissing my lips. I’m thinking, Oh, my God, this can’t be happening. I didn’t know what to do. I was just a child. I didn’t have the ego strength to say no. I was shocked, uncomfortable, but I let it persist. He unzipped my pants and started to masturbate me.”

 

Somary took him on glee-club trips and then on solo trips to Europe, M. said: “We stayed at the best hotels, I met with the great classical musicians of the time and ate at the finest restaurants. I was expected to have sex with him and did even though it repulsed me every time. It was all very confusing. At one point I told my parents I no longer wanted to sleep in the same room with him on the European trips.” When Somary found out, he “drove to my house and sat in my living room like a jilted lover, begging me to stay in the same room with him,” M. said. “Right in front of my father.” M.’s mother, who confirmed his story, said she and her husband didn’t understand the nature of their son’s discomfort. They thought he was just being a teenager, preferring the company of his peers. He couldn’t bring himself to tell his parents the truth.

 

The arrangement continued for three years — even into M.’s time at college, he said. “I don’t know why I let it go on for so long,” M. said. “I’ve been asking myself that for decades.”

 

E. B., too, is still struggling to make sense of what happened to him. He started a blog called “Johannes Somary, Pedophile,” which he hoped would become a gathering place for fellow victims. (E.B. said one other victim reached out to him after coming across the blog.) At the urging of his therapist, he wrote a letter to Somary explaining the scars his abuse left. He received no reply. When he also wrote to Somary’s wife, he said, he received a cease-and-desist letter from her lawyer. I wrote to her also, and to Somary’s children, in hopes of discussing these allegations, but none of them replied.

 

Two decades after E. B.’s experiences with Somary, a student named Benjamin Balter, a member of the class of 1994, made a similar allegation.

 

In the summer of 1993, as Ben was preparing for his senior year at Horace Mann, he accompanied the glee club on a European trip. When he came back, his family says, they could tell something had changed. “He was always really, really smart,” Charles Balter said of his brother. “He was a really nice guy, but he was always a bit socially awkward. One of those kids who could perform at the highest levels of math and science but couldn’t do the basic things like tie his shoes.” After the trip, Charles said, “he was withdrawn, angry and secretive.”

 

The Balter family was in turmoil on a number of fronts at the time — Charles was recovering from a swimming accident (in which Ben had saved his life), their parents’ marriage had just ended and Ben was in the midst of coming out of the closet — so though they noticed Ben’s unhappiness, it did not occur to them that abuse could be the cause. That fall, Ben took private music lessons from Somary at St. Jean Baptiste, a church in Manhattan. Ben’s mother — who works at Horace Mann and who asked that I not print her name — says she asked Somary if she could observe a lesson. Impossible, he told her.

 

It was soon thereafter that Ben’s father found him hidden in a crawl space, passed out after swallowing pills. He was admitted to Nyack Hospital, where he was placed on suicide watch.

 

The day after he was released, Ben sent a letter to Phil Foote, then Horace Mann’s headmaster, accusing Somary of “grossly inappropriate sexual advances.” The letter said in part: “The purpose of a school such as Horace Mann is to provide a safe and comfortable learning environment. This goal is clearly made impossible by the inappropriate actions of teachers such as Mr. Somary. It is unfair to me and to other students to have such teachers in our midst, for they compromise not only the goals of the Horace Mann school but also the integrity of education in general.”

 

Ben’s mother says she confronted Somary, the man she knew as her son’s teacher as well as her own colleague. “Ben kissed me first,” she says he told her. When she demanded, “How dare you put your tongue down my son’s mouth!” his reply, she says, was, “That’s how we Swiss kiss.”

 

Foote’s tenure as headmaster lasted only three years, and since that time he suffered a stroke, but speaking recently in his home on the Upper East Side, he was able to recall both the letter and the surrounding events. “Somary came into my office with the mother and strenuously denied everything,” Foote said. “His vehemence made a lot of people put off doing anything about it.” Later, Foote said: “All the administration and trustees got together and decided they wouldn’t do anything about it. People came out of the woodwork protecting Somary.” (I have contacted 10 trustees from that era. Most declined to speak to me at all; only one, Michael Hess, agreed to speak with me on the record, but he said he had no specific recollection of the incident.)

 

Ben’s mother says a lawyer affiliated with the school warned her that unless she had evidence of the abuse on tape, there was nothing she could do. “It was Ben’s word against Somary’s,” she says she was told.

 

Whatever the legal standards might have been for firing or even prosecuting Somary, nothing was stopping the school from at least talking to Ben about his experiences. But according to his mother, no school official ever did. Exhausted by a divorce process, with one son in the hospital and another only recently released, and with no evidence of the kind the lawyer mentioned, Ben’s mother dropped her protest.

 

As for Ben, he finished up his senior year and went to Brown. But he didn’t seem to find solace there, nor in his postcollege life, in which he muddled through a series of jobs and relationships, struggling with depression and finding it hard to commit to anything. Charles said that through it all, Ben continued to bring up the abuse he had suffered. “There was definitely a before- and after-Somary quality to his life,” Charles said. In 2009, while living on Shelter Island, off the eastern end of Long Island, he made another suicide attempt, with antidepressants and alcohol. This time he succeeded.

 

***

 

“I have been running from this thing most of my life.”

 

I spoke with nearly 100 people for this article, including 60 former students and 15 former or current faculty members. Some of them implored me not to pursue the subject, insisting that no good could come of opening old wounds. Others said that Horace Mann today is a very different place than it was back then — eagerly responsive to the concerns of students and parents. Some said they were unaware of these rumors. Some said nothing had happened to them but that they had heard similar stories from classmates. Many said they were surprised it took this long for these stories to come out.

 

The former students who chose to share their stories with me are all men, but if their classmates are to be believed, the situation was far more complex. People who haven’t set foot in the school in 30 years still rattle off the names of male teachers who were said to be sleeping with their female students. A couple of female faculty members were said to be sleeping with male students. Once I started asking around, these stories continued to bubble up — from friends I thought I knew well and from other schools, public and private, each with their own elaborate histories of which teachers you ought to steer clear of, which students seemed too old for their years. In just the past couple of years, among just the tiny fraternity of elite New York City private schools, two allegations made the news. A male math teacher at Riverdale Country School pleaded not guilty to charges that he had oral sex with a 16-year-old female student. And Poly Prep was named as a defendant in a lawsuit in which 10 former students and two day-campers say the school covered up for a football coach who was molesting boys. In New York City public schools, during the first three months of 2012, reports of sexual misconduct involving school employees were up 35 percent compared with the same period last year.

 

I have several friends who confided in me, back in high school, about their own sexual encounters with teachers, but who are now unwilling to talk about it. I can’t say I blame them. Victims rarely speak out, said Paul Mones, a lawyer who represents people who have been sexually abused by authority figures. “The whole goal of the grooming process is to wrap the child close,” he told me. “The affection and trust is to make the kid complicit in the act. Make them feel like it was their fault, so it won’t even occur to them to talk.” Even if they do, New York State’s statute of limitations, which says people who were victimized as minors cannot take civil action against an abuser after they turn 23, makes it unlikely that they would find justice.

 

Thirty or even 40 years later, many students who have talked about surviving their teachers’ abuse say they still live in its shadow. “I spent decades feeling unlovable,” said E. B., the creator of the anti-Somary Web site. “I drank and drugged for many years, because I just couldn’t face all the anger it brought up.”

 

Andrew, my friend from the camping trip, said: “You spend a lot of your life feeling like an outsider — it shatters you. These people who were supposed to be the good guys were actually the bad guys, and nobody would talk about it.”

 

M., the one who says Somary abused him for years, also feels the effects. “I have had so many issues that I think I can trace back to  this,” he said, including drug abuse and broken marriages. “I have been running from this thing most of my life.”

 

Stories like theirs point to why sexual abuse by teachers — or religious leaders or relatives, for that matter — is so especially damaging. As Mones said: “It’s counterintuitive, but sexual abuse emotionally binds the child closer to the person who has harmed him, setting him up for a life plagued by suspicion and confusion, because he will never be sure who he can really trust. And in my experience, this is by far the worst consequence of sexual abuse.” That’s one reason, he said, why those few victims who ever speak out at all tend to do so only after the abuser is dead or dying: telling the truth while the other person is still strong enough to deny it, or to blame the accuser, is just too terrifying.

 

At Horace Mann, students who spoke up at the time and saw quick action from the school seem to have suffered few, if any, ill effects. “I was not traumatized by the experience in the least,” Seth, the student at the center of the John Dorr Nature Lab confrontation with Stan Kops, told me. “In fact, I was just relaying the story to a friend the other day at lunch. I think the school acted swiftly and appropriately.”

 

The football player who blew the whistle on Mark Wright’s “private-part inspections” also says he was not traumatized. Though the administration did not inform him of its action, Wright was gone almost immediately, and the student says he was satisfied with the outcome. “No one knew why he was gone, but as far as I am concerned, the administration wasted no time in addressing the situation,” he said. “I have the deepest respect for how it was handled. Unbelievably glad about how they handled it.”

 

For whatever reason, the allegations against Johannes Somary were handled quite differently. At some point after the incident with Ben, faculty members said, Somary was told he could no longer travel unchaperoned with students. But he continued to teach. Several teachers past and present say they noticed his unusually close relationships with certain students. “In the late ’60s, early ’70s, people started talking about his inappropriate behavior,” one of his former colleagues said. “One student a year was anointed,” another said. A third former teacher, who taught at Horace Mann during the last years before Somary’s retirement, said he was shocked at the time that Somary was still allowed to teach.

 

These teachers saw enough to make them wonder and even to worry. Yet when the school chose not to act, none of them shouted from the rooftop for help. They came to work the next day, as they had the day before. Teachers had strong incentives not to speak: their jobs were on the line, as was the reputation of an institution in which they had invested some degree of their identities. Even today, witnesses with no current ties to the school have reasons not to speak. Those with school-age children worry about damaging their children’s chances at Horace Mann or other elite New York schools. Others point to Horace Mann’s influence, real or perceived, and what it could do to their careers or social standings.

 

Perhaps the teachers who wondered about Somary thought they didn’t have enough information. Perhaps they just dearly hoped their hunches were wrong. At least one wishes now that he had acted differently.

 

“In some ways,” said the teacher who worked at Horace Mann during Somary’s last years at the school, “I guess I’m culpable.”

 

After Horace Mann, Mark Wright lived for a while in Washington, D.C., and worked at TIAA-CREF, the financial-services organization. Then the trail grows faint. His Horace Mann classmates didn’t keep up with him after college, and of the dozens of Princeton classmates contacted for this article, none had any information to share. Wright died in 2004 while living in a bay-side condo in the South Beach section of Miami Beach. The cause was never announced.

 

When Stan Kops left Horace Mann, he landed at Rutgers Prep, a private school in Somerset, N.J., where he taught history while taking classes at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. A former Rutgers Prep official, who was involved in Kops’s hiring but who did not have permission to comment on it, said the school always checked applicants’ references. “No one from Horace Mann said anything that indicated Stan would be anything other than a safe bet at Rutgers,” that official said. “Rutgers had no idea about any potential allegations of sexual impropriety against Stan at H.M. If they had, they never would have hired him.”

 

Kops finished the year without incident, the Rutgers Prep official said, but “he had strange teaching habits and taught in ways more in keeping with a more homogeneous school like Horace Mann.” His contract was not renewed.

 

Shortly after the school year ended at Rutgers Prep, Kops drove across the Raritan River to Piscataway and shot himself — not standing on a baseball diamond, as the more imaginative gossip had claimed, but sitting in his car, the police told the school administrator. A close relative of Kops’s, speaking on behalf of his family, said they had no comment for this article. Today his name appears on the honor roll of the Tillinghast Society, which recognizes alumni who made provisions for Horace Mann in their wills.

 

As for Somary, he taught at the school without interruption, until his retirement, at 67, in 2002.

 

Phil Foote, the former head of school, told me that he didn’t know why Ben Balter’s mother “gave up so easily” in her quest to see Somary fired. “I always wondered why she didn’t pursue it,” he told me. “Maybe she just got defeated.” Sitting in his living room recently, I asked him why he himself didn’t try to remove Somary, or at least to investigate the charges more thoroughly. Why didn’t he go to the police? “The structure of H.M. was not easy,” he said. “There were groups and groups within groups. It was a time with different values and different systems. You didn’t have the access you do now. It was hubris. H.M. was sure it was above everybody else. Nobody wanted anything to change.”

 

I asked if he knew what became of Ben. He said no, then paused to study my face. “He committed suicide?” he guessed, before I could say it. He turned away and, staring into the middle distance, said, “Oh, my Lord.”

 

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