Connecticut Man Speaks Out About Abuse: "It Murders the Soul" | Connecticut Public Radio
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Connecticut Man Speaks Out About Abuse: "It Murders the Soul"

May 21, 2016

John Sweeney said he’s hopeful that he can prove that the school knew about and covered up the abuse.

A Connecticut man who said he was sexually abused as a child at a private school in Massachusetts wants to see the statute of limitations on the crime abolished. 

John Sweeney told his story in detail as he called for a federal investigation of the Fessenden School in West Newton.

Sweeney was eleven years old when he began as a boarder at the elite Fessenden School in the late 1960s. He said there he was drugged and sexually assaulted by assistant headmaster Arthur Clarridge, an event that’s still vivid to him, almost 50 years later.

“I have nightmares all the time," Sweeney said. "The worst is when they go into flashbacks. The flashbacks are really devastating to me, because I can actually go back to that night." 

Back then, children were seldom taken at their word, even by those closest to them.

“The next day, I called my mom. And because she was so enamored with this Harvard piece of you-know-what, she didn’t believe me,” said Sweeney.

He went next to headmaster Robert Coffin, who he said had also previously touched him inappropriately. “He said come now Johnny, come now, you’re making this up. You’ve got a vivid imagination. They would always blame it on, he’s just a kid, they’re making it up.”

Sweeney sat in the living room of his home in New London to give his account. With him were two other Fessenden alumni, who have their own stories to tell.

The Fessenden School in Newton, Mass
Credit Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Adrian Hooper attended the school in the early sixties and said he was subjected to repeated sexual abuse.

“It was a nightmare living there," Hooper said. "I remember calling my parents and begging them to take me home. And they just thought, you know, I was just homesick.”

Hooper eventually ran away from the school. 

John Sweeney has been campaigning on this issue for several years, publishing his claims on his website, and collecting the stories of other victims, and of those who remember witnessing abuse. 

The eleven former Fessenden students cannot bring a criminal case against those who abused them because the statute of limitations has run out on their cases.

John Parker said he wasn’t personally harmed at the school, but spoke out for the first time of events he witnessed at Fessenden as an eight-year-old boy. He told the story of one afternoon when he went searching for a friend in a dorm room building. 

"As I walk in I turn and I see Arthur Clarridge, in bed, naked with this kid," Parker recalled. "So, Clarridge was behind him, and they’re both facing me. No blankets on, nothing. From head to ankle is what I saw.” 

Parker said as a child he had no frame of reference to interpret what he saw, and he buried these and other remembrances until he was contacted by the school recently about the subject.

 

An entry that Arthur Clarridge wrote for a Harvard paper about his career
Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR

Clarridge and another Fessenden teacher, James Dallman, were arrested in connection with pedophilia in 1977, accused of having sex with boys at a home in Revere.

Clarridge is now in his 80s and living in Florida. He has always denied the accusations of abuse at the school. And for years, Fessenden also maintained that no such activity took place on the campus itself, and that school authorities were not aware of the abuse.

Only in 2011 did the school reach out to alumni to speak about the stories. Authorities at Fessenden issued a statement to WNPR, saying the school has acknowledged and apologized for abuses that took place decades ago, and offered counseling to anyone who was harmed.

Sweeney and Hooper are now among 11 former Fessenden students represented by Mitchell Garabedian, whose Boston law practice specializes in pursuing the perpetrators of child abuse. They cannot bring a criminal case against those who abused them because the statute of limitations has run out on their cases.

But Sweeney said he’s hopeful that he can prove that the school knew about and covered up the abuse, something that might amount to fraudulent concealment. 

“We have to abolish the statute of limitations for child sex abuse because it murders the souls of children like me," Sweeney said. "I say my prayers and we’re praying right now, that I’ll be able some day to see Clarridge in a court of law.”

And for the hundreds of Connecticut kids who have been sent to the Fessenden School over the decades, John Parker had this message: “I believe there’s a lot of you out there, like myself, that witnessed things, saw things. You know what, it’s your responsibility to come forward here.”

Sweeney and Hooper’s stories are just some of those featured in a recent investigation by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, which took a wide-ranging look at sexual abuse allegations in independent schools in New England. The Fessenden School’s headmaster, David Stettler, wrote again to the school community on May 5th of this year, saying the school is resolute in its commitment to protect its students.