Decades After Alleged Abuse, St. Paul's Alumni Explain Why They're Suing

May 11, 2018


Chester Irons' relationship with St. Paul’s School didn’t always feel so complicated.

He’s in his 60s now, yet he can still remember the exhilarating feeling of being dropped off at the Concord boarding school for the first time.

"I stepped out of the car with my parents and said goodbye to them and ran off with a bunch of friends I met literally 20 minutes earlier. It was a new beginning, a new adventure and I was very excited," he recalled in a recent phone interview.

Irons said he flourished at St. Paul’s, and he loved it. And decades later, he became president of the alumni association and a member of the board of trustees.

And looking back now, Irons said he was able to donate his time and money to this beloved institution because for decades he disassociated himself from a darker experience that he has only recently come to terms with.

"The bottom line is I was raped by a sadistic sexual predator," Irons said. "I mean that is what one would label it today."

Irons said it wasn’t until a therapy session in 2014 that the memory of this incident hit him "like a freight train."

Four years later, he and another former student, Biff Mithoefer, are now suing St. Paul's school for negligence, alleging that the school was aware that faculty members sexually abused students and didn't do anything to stop it.

Click here to read previous coverage and the full text of the lawsuit

The complaint refers to St. Paul's "a haven for sexual predators." It's the first time in recent memory that former students have sued the school for not protecting them from being sexually abused by faculty members. Both alumni have also raised questions about how the current administration is handling allegations of past abuse.

And in the days since they sued St. Paul's, their attorney said four other alumni have contacted his firm.

Irons' allegations involve Coolidge Mead Chapin, a faculty member who has been at the center of other sexual abuse allegations from St. Paul's alumni. He said Chapin took him and other male students to a brothel in New York and ordered them to strip down and have sex with prostitutes, and Irons alleges St Paul’s was well aware of Chapin’s behavior.

"[Chapin] was there for four decades. He abused fathers and sons, he abused brothers...It was a multigenerational nightmare that continued for decades," Irons said.

Both Irons and Mithoefer admit it took them decades to be open about what had happened to them.

For Mithoefer, he said the realization didn't come until a few years ago. He said he started hearing about other alumni experiences, and he watched a legal battle play out over the sexual assault of a female student just a few years ago. It made him think back about his own St. Paul's experience.

And then he said he remembered the uncomfortable comments from two faculty members about sex and masturbation and the inappropriate ways he says two other faculty members touched him.

"Looking back on it from here, it just astonishes me. I can so much more equally relate to people who feel powerless in these situations and don't know how to process it. I mean, I can't believe I didn't say anything because now, looking back, of course you would say something," Mithoefer said in a recent interview.

Eventually, Mithoefer said he did say something. He was so disturbed by these incidents that he said he decided to do an independent study off campus for two terms. When he came back for graduation, he said he told then Rector William Oates about one of the times a faculty member had touched him.

"He was very clear that he knew what had happened to me. He knew why I had left campus. When I asked him about the diploma, he was very clear that whether I recieved the diploma or not depended on how I behaved, and everything would be fine as long as there weren't a lot of problems," Mithoefer said.

For its part, St Paul’s current administration said Irons and Mithoefer’s stories are "terrible."

In a letter to the St. Paul's community, Board President Archibald Cox Jr. apologized "for the pain they experienced and for any failure of the School to protect them.”

"The allegations of faculty wrongdoing are deeply troubling," Cox wrote. "The idea that the administration knew of and covered up the wrongdoing is disgraceful.”

In the days since the lawsuit and this letter, other alumni have been inspired to talk about their experiences. According to Jonathan Barnes, one of Irons' and Mitthoefer's attorneys, four other St. Paul's alumni have contacted their law firm.

That doesn’t necessarily mean there will be four more lawsuits, but experts say public accusations often come in waves. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said the fact that two alumni - not just one - are suing the school, likely encouraged other potential victims to come forward.

"When one person makes an allegation, it's easier to dismiss it. But once you get two, three, four, five people making an allegation, it has more substance to it," he said. "So I think the strength in numbers issue empowers people to come forward."

Plus, Finkehor said, the conversation about sexual abuse has changed over the past few decades: The metoo movement has kept sexual misconduct in the national headlines. Locally, there were reports last year from Boston law firm Cassner and Edwards that showed dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct at St. Paul’s between 1948 and 2009.

And long before that report was the Catholic Church abuse scandal. For so long, Finklehor said the conversation about sexual abuse often cetnered around female victims. But he said the Catholic church scandal was a "watershed" moment for male private school students who suffered abuse because it likely helped them understand their own experience.

"We began to see many more male victims and individuals in powerful institutions and more discussion about coverup of these situations by institutions," Finkelhor said.

And so all this has lead up to this moment and this lawsuit.

Irons said it was an agonizing decision to sue St. Paul’s and Mithoefer said it has not been fun to have his name in stories like this one.

But Mithoefer has watched gymnasts stand up to their abusive trainer and he’s watched a close friend deal with sexual abuses. And he said it just pushed him over the edge.

"If a 67 year-old, middle class northeasterner can't have the courage to step forward and stand next to these women and these young people and the other abusers, whether they're St. Paul's or wherever they are, who's gonna stand next to them?" he said.

In the meantime, New Hampshire’s Attorney General is in the middle of a criminal investigation into St. Paul’s. Officials have said they’re focused on whether the school is responsible for endangering the welfare of their students.