A Quaker School’s Response to Allegations of Sexual Abuse

Aerial view of Carolina Friends School today. Photo courtesy of Carolina Friends School.

Stories of sexual abuse and its mismanagement at schools and religious organizations have become routine. But what might a Quaker response to abuse allegations look like?

Stories of sexual abuse and its mismanagement at schools and religious organizations have become routine. But what might a Quaker response to abuse allegations look like? Carolina Friends School (CFS), a pre-kindergarten to twelfth-grade school in Durham, North Carolina, offers an example.

We are writing today to share some difficult news from our past. Several students who attended Carolina Friends School between 1969 and 1975 have told us that a former principal sexually abused them during their lower and middle school years. One of those students has also shared sexual abuse by a former Middle School teacher in the spring of 1976.

So began the letter signed by principal Mike Hanas and clerk of the board Marsha Green that appeared on the front page of the Carolina Friends School website on June 11, 2014. The letter went on to acknowledge the courage of the former students who shared their stories of abuse, apologize to them on behalf of the school community, and name the alleged perpetrators. The letter was emailed to every former student, current and former parent, current and former staff member, current and former trustee, and to local media.

A set of questions and answers attached to the letter gave the rationale for the wide distribution. 

Given our values, keeping this matter as quiet, private or hidden was not an option. To do so would suggest that our former students or the School had something to hide. By remaining silent, we reinforce a pernicious culture of silence regarding child sexual abuse and we foreclose the opportunity for others who may be harmed to pursue their own healing.

The discernment leading up to this moment began many years earlier. In 2003, Hanas had heard from an alum that while a student at CFS, they had been touched inappropriately by then-principal Harold Jernigan. The former student brought this information forward only to preface a specific request: that Jernigan not be allowed to attend the upcoming fortieth anniversary of the school. Hanas consulted with the school’s lawyer and a longtime trustee. The decision was made to send a certified letter to Jernigan making the request. Jernigan did not attend the anniversary and did not respond to the letter, then or at any time since.

“I’ve gotten a lot of credit for being transparent,” said principal Hanas, “but in 2003 I was not transparent, or I was only as transparent as I could be.” After hearing the allegations, Hanas had asked the school lawyer if there was more they should be doing to address the scandal. Their choice to not share the allegation more broadly was “first and foremost in response to the alum’s request.”

But Hanas kept in touch with this alum:

I think they had experienced my response as supportive. As a result, they occasionally checked in with me and gave me the opportunity to ask how they were doing. They said they felt more supported than they ever had with the school. . . . I think that set the stage for them to join the group of five former students who were willing to share more broadly in 2012.

In the fall of 2012, the issue of past abuse at the school arose again with the planning for the fiftieth anniversary of the school. The development director informed Hanas of a conversation started around a post on the Carolina Friends reunion listserv: “if anyone was on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior by adults at the school all those years ago, reach out if you need someone to talk to.”

Again Hanas had to decide how to respond. “There were mixed feelings, but I felt like I had an obligation to learn what I could,” Hanas recalls.

I said to them, I’ve become aware of your exchange on the listserv. . . . I don’t know what the school today can do, but I do want you to know I’m aware, and if this is something you’d like me to know more about and would consider working with me figuring out what we can do today, then I’m ready, willing, and able to do so.

The former students—there were more than one now—were willing to have their allegations heard more broadly. Hanas, after consulting with the school lawyer, the clerk of the board of trustees, and the board’s executive committee, brought the information to two key administrators and to the whole CFS board of trustees.

“We were certain that this was not Mike Hanas’s issue to deal with alone,” said Marsha Green, clerk of the board. “We were clear that we wanted to find out as much as we could as to whether these allegations held water, but we realized that we did not have the expertise needed.”

The board asked Hanas to hire independent investigators so that an unbiased truth could come out. Green recalled, “We did not want this to end up as us versus them. What was important to the board was that we would be able to hear all the different voices.”

Hanas recommended and the board accepted hiring Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez. In the set of questions and answers attached to the June 2014 letter, they described Smith and Gomez this way:

Philadelphia-based attorneys who are nationally recognized experts in child abuse, sexual misconduct, and appropriate institutional responses; [they are] former child abuse prosecutors and educators who have devoted their careers to preventing and responding to child abuse, sexual violence, and interpersonal violence.

Hanas recalls “our decision about attorneys to work with to conduct the investigation was informed by my strong sense that Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez were as committed to inquiry [as we were] . . . we were not going to assume that we knew the answers, that we knew what happened.”

Smith and Gomez investigated for nearly two years. Confidential interviews were conducted with former students, parents, former and current staff, and board members. Smith and Gomez shared pertinent information with law enforcement. As the investigation developed, it seemed unlikely there would be a criminal prosecution. Allegations that emerged would have been misdemeanors in North Carolina, and the statute of limitations would have expired. But that did not stop the investigation.

“At some point, it became clear that there may not be a legal resolution,” Green recalls:

But there was a sense that having gotten that far, we couldn’t drop it just because there were no legal issues. That would leave us holding on to this story that could not be made public. And that did not sit well. It would have been a secret then, which would fester. There was a hope . . . that perhaps there might be, in the end, some kind of a resolution and a restoration of relationships between Bill Butcher, Harold Jernigan, and some of the people who were making these allegations. . . . We couldn’t expect that kind of resolution if we just pushed the story under a rug and never, ever made it public.

The original Carolina Friends School road sign as it appeared in the mid-1970s. Photos courtesy of Carolina Friends School.

Posting values on a wall or website is one thing, but it is not the same as having those values lived out in a school or community.

The investigation continued and was made public with the June 2014 letter. The letter  recognized that news like this might “raise concerns and stir strong emotions,” and provided a hotline number for a confidential, licensed psychologist that had been arranged by the school. The set of questions and answers noted the “ongoing, comprehensive review of [CFS] policies and practices with respect to the protection of our students” that the school had undertaken.

Responses to the letter’s publication came in rapidly. Many positive responses came in, but one response was unexpected and devastating. Bill Butcher, the middle school teacher named in the letter, killed himself 24 to 48 hours after the letter appeared.

Hanas had been in contact with Butcher and had explained why and when the letter would be published. In a phone conversation with Hanas, Butcher had acknowledged his wrongdoing and expressed his desire to participate in whatever kind of restorative justice processes might follow.

“I don’t feel like to this day that I had nothing to do with Bill Butcher’s death,” said Hanas, “but . . . I am able to live with that because of ways in which Quaker values inform the decisions I made, like the decision to be as transparent as possible in the interest of creating a safe space for the survivors of abuse. But we didn’t get everything I wanted from the process.”

Green recalls that “there was a wonderful moment where Mike [Hanas] was able to report that yes, he had spoken to Bill [Butcher], and Bill was saying how sorry he was that his actions had caused this pain. So there was that moment of hope. To have that dashed, when we found out that he had taken his life: that was hard.”

CFS promptly published the news of Butcher’s suicide with an update on their website.

A local paper, the News & Observer,  published an article on July 21, 2014, that captured some of the responses:

Some were outraged that Carolina Friends had publicly identified Butcher and Harold Jernigan, the former principal, even though the men had not been charged with a crime.

One parent wrote that the disclosure abandoned the innocent-until-proven-guilty standard at the core of the justice system. A friend of Butcher’s wrote that the school had wrongly put itself in the position of judge, jury, and executioner, convicting the two accused men in the media. That, the friend said, drove Butcher over the edge.

Others were critical of the school for waiting two years to disclose the past abuse. Mostly, though, the reaction was positive.

The News & Observer story also included the reaction of Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, author of the 2007 book, Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. “It’s extraordinarily rare and very impressive . . . they’re doing all the right things.” The article cited Frawley-O’Dea’s praise of CFS’s “victim-centered approach that included acknowledging the abuse, providing counseling resources, revamping policies, training staff members, and creating a safe space for victims to step forward.”

“Victim-centered approach . . . included acknowledging the abuse, providing counseling resources, revamping policies, training staff members, and creating a safe space for victims to step forward.”

There’s no official Quaker handbook to outline responses to allegations of sexual abuse at a Friends school. But CFS’s responses were informed by their school philosophy and other commonly cited Quaker values.

In describing the logic behind his responses, Hanas cites one of the six beliefs named in the school philosophy, “belief that the truth is continually revealed.”

That belief summoned us to be a truth-seeking community and to be most concerned when we thought we had the answer to any complex question…. If truth is continually revealed, then we ought to be tireless, relentless in pursuing it.

The corollary to this emphasis on truth-seeking is transparency, sharing with everyone the truths that are known, or being clear about what specific conditions limit full transparency.

Another Quaker belief from the CFS philosophy evident in the process is “belief in the power of silence.” Silence was an important part of the board’s decision-making process. According to Green, “We grounded our business meetings in worship and came back to the silence when we needed to. We made space to make sure that all hearts were clear to go forward. We had some very long meetings.”

The Quaker value of equality informed the response, not only in listening to all voices but in recognizing that a Friends school or community, like any other school or religious community, is not immune to sexual abuse.

“We’re human,” Hanas reminds us. “We’re part of the human race. As such, we’re deeply flawed as well as marvelously capable. It’s important that we don’t . . . waste any time in disbelief when something like this has happened.”

Marsha Green recalls:

when the board came together in the first few months as this surfaced in 2012, we knew we needed to be transparent with the community. That was a decision that I don’t even remember having any hard discernment over; it was just, this is what we do. We don’t keep secrets; we share when it’s appropriate. That decision drove a lot of our ongoing discussions and decisions.

Mike Hanas saw the integrity present at the school as central to his responses:

At other stages of my career, I was part of other school communities where the commitment to truth-seeking was not as explicit, as palpable, as pervasive…not as in the air that we breathe. I’d like to think that I would have done the same thing [at these other schools], but I’m not sure I would have. The clarity with which I took the first step in the way in which we framed our engagement, it was formed by what I had come to understand to be our Friends community’s commitment to truth-seeking.

Posting values on a wall or website is one thing, but it is not the same as having those values lived out in a school or community. Both Green and Hanas emphasized that what made their decisions not easy, but clear, was the culture of truth-telling and the value of integrity present in the CFS community.

Erik Hanson

Erik Hanson is one of the news editors for Friends Journal, along with his wife, Windy Cooler. Erik has served as a friendly adult presence in Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s Youth Program since 2005. He taught English and math at Friends Community School in College Park, Md., from 2006 to 2008.

3 thoughts on “A Quaker School’s Response to Allegations of Sexual Abuse

  1. I wish my former church, the purportedly liberal, inclusive Episcopal church, took such an approach. When I complained to diocesan officials about what I perceived to bullying and other questionable conduct in my parish, I received a letter telling me that my concerns were not of “weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.”

    Moreover, the diocese knowingly permitted my former rector to retaliate for my complaint.

  2. In the 1920s and 30s, the American Friends Service Committee addressed the issue of racial bias in Friends Schools. Writing on “Friends Schools and Sacred Cows” (Friends Intelligencer 1931 Sixth Month , pp 506-507) Friends educator and activist Rachel Davis DuBois noted that Friends student attitudes toward other ethnic groups was as biased in Friends Schools as it was in traditional public schools. The article published here demonstrates once again that as much as Friends try, they are not immune to the issues of morality, like they were with racism.

  3. Our community is blessed to have had conscientious, caring, hard-working, honest Friends like Mike Hanas, Marsha Green, and many others dealing with this difficult situation. They held in sacred trust the Quaker testimonies of truth, integrity, peace, and community while they helped the school community find its way through.

    No, Quakers are not “perfect”. But these Quakers did their level best to live up to our ideals. And I am deeply grateful for the work they did.

    -Toby Berla, former clerk of Durham Friends Meeting, and father of two kids who attended CFS between 2011 and 2015.

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