Wellesley College president Paula A. Johnson, after recently meeting with a student-athlete molested in the 1990s by cross-country coach John Babington, said in a letter to the school community Friday that the institution continues “to grapple with the disturbing news of sexual abuse and misconduct perpetrated” by the college’s longtime coach but has strengthened its safety protocols.
Babington acknowledged in separate interviews with the Boston Globe and the US Center for SafeSport that he initiated improper sexual contact with the Wellesley student, a standout cross-country runner, when he was 51 and she was 19. He described the episode to the Globe as “a midlife crisis” and to SafeSport as “a secret romance.”
Babington, now 77, of Ashland, also admitted sexually abusing three-time Olympian runner Lynn Jennings when she was 15 and world-class runner Darlene Beckford Pearson when she was 16 or 17, while he was their coach. In December, SafeSport cited Babington’s sexual abuse of the three women in permanently barring him from participating in any Olympic-related activities.
“We continue to feel particular anger, sadness, and pain knowing that one of the victims who came forward was a former Wellesley student,” Johnson said in her letter. “I would like to reiterate my deep regret that she suffered due to Babington’s misconduct.”
The woman, who has asked not to be identified because she remains traumatized, previously told the Globe she felt so betrayed by Babington and the school’s handling of her complaint that she transferred to another college. She said the experience irreparably damaged her.
Babington “robbed me of my innocence, made a college coming of age story that should have been beautiful and memorable into something I have tried to forget in order to survive,” she previously wrote to the Globe.
On Friday, the woman’s attorney and a Wellesley spokeswoman declined to comment.
Earlier this month, more than 200 Wellesley alumnae sent a letter to Johnson and Wellesley’s board of trustees, expressing “profound anger, disgust and disappointment with the College’s handling” of the episode.
The Globe reported that Wellesley, rather than fire Babington or report him to the police for molesting the student, placed him on unpaid leave for only a semester and never formally notified his future assistant coaches or student-athletes about the abuse. He coached at Wellesley from 1987 to 2013.
“In light of the public spotlight on the College arising from its mishandling of the original situation, we feel Wellesley should reassure all who care about the College that it has done and is doing everything possible to account for its past shortcomings and to ensure that any current or future incidents are appropriately addressed,” the alumnae wrote.
The alumnae called on Wellesley to create an investigative task force to examine the incident and “determine whether the College’s current policies ensure that such a miscarriage of justice never happens again.”
Separately, former Wellesley cross-country runner Allison McKenzie and a teammate met earlier this month with Justin Bell, the school’s director of nondiscrimination initiatives and Title IX coordinator, and requested that the college expand its reporting protocol for other students with whom Babington may have been improperly involved beyond Bell himself.
Johnson said in her letter Friday that Wellesley has enlisted the Mintz law firm and its attorney, Natashia Tidwell, as an additional source for former students to contact with any information about Babington.
McKenzie commended the administration for hiring the outside firm.
“Nothing can undo the terrible damage these women suffered,” she said. “I’m glad the Wellesley administration took this matter seriously and created a dedicated reporting process for any other former athletes who may have suffered abuse during Babington’s tenure.”
Wellesley said it has yet to receive any additional abuse complaints about Babington.
Johnson outlined numerous steps Wellesley has taken since the 1990s to prevent sexual misconduct, including a strict prohibition on any dating or relationships between students and faculty or staff, regardless of whether they may be considered consensual.
“We cannot change the past,” Johnson said, “but we can learn from it.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.