Metro

Former Fessenden students sue school, alleging officials ignored abuse

John Sweeney gestured and declared, "This is what recovery looks like!" He was a student at the Fessenden School and said he was abused.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
John Sweeney gestured and declared, "This is what recovery looks like!" He was a student at the Fessenden School and said he was abused.

Two former students of the Fessenden School in Newton said Monday they are suing the private boarding school, claiming officials failed to protect them from years of sexual abuse by staff members, including the assistant headmaster.

William A. Greaves II and John Sweeney, who attended the school as young boys in the 1960s and 1970s, filed the lawsuit Friday, alleging that the school knew children were vulnerable to teachers and the former assistant headmaster, Arthur P. Clarridge, Jr.

Sweeney, who was 11 when the alleged abuse began in 1969, said he remembered Clarridge and other school officials walking by his dorm at night, winking at him and blowing kisses, part of a campaign of torment that would not end until 1972.

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“I’d pull up my sheets and just hope they wouldn’t attack me,” Sweeney said during a press conference at his lawyer’s office on Federal Street.

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Clarridge was in his early 90s when he died last month. He previously denied allegations by Sweeney.

In a statement, the school said it has worked “to openly, honestly, and compassionately approach claims of abuse by former students.”

“We recognize the pain caused by abuse in the past, and we continue to apologize to anyone who suffered. As always, we consider safety within our community our highest priority,” the statement read.

“The school first brought the issue of past abuse to its entire alumni community in 2011 in an effort to allow any who were abused to seek closure. Having learned of this claim only today and through calls we received from the news media, we are not in a position to comment further at this time,” the statement added.

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Greaves, who was enrolled at the school between 1960 and 1966, said he was 8 years old when he was abused by the school psychologist, his dorm master, and his art teacher. Greaves was at the press conference Monday but did not comment to reporters.

William A. Greaves is a plaintiff in a suit against the Fessenden School.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
William A. Greaves is a plaintiff in a suit against the Fessenden School.

Greaves’s allegations were the latest against Fessenden, which serves prekindergarten through ninth grade and has an enrollment of 515.

Sweeney’s case was among many analyzed by the Globe Spotlight team in 2016 that revealed that since 1991, at least 67 private schools in New England had faced allegations of abuse or harassment by staffers. At least 200 students complained of misconduct.

The Fessenden School never disputed any specific allegations of abuse documented in the Globe series.

Carmen L. Durso, who is representing Sweeney and Greaves, said that Greaves wanted to come forward in 2011 but his mother begged him not to. Her death recently allowed him to step forward, Durso said.

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Greaves was allegedly abused by a doctor at the school known as Dr. Young, who forced him to get naked in his office and abused him repeatedly.

“Dr. Young told him that the sexual abuse that he was inflicting on him was for his benefit, to help his stress,” Durso said. Greaves “would see other boys coming back . . . in tears after they had been also in to see Dr. Young.”

Sweeney said Monday that when he told the headmaster at the time, Robert P. T. Coffin , that Clarridge had drugged him then performed oral sex on him, Coffin scoffed.

“ ‘Come now, John,’ ” Sweeney recalled him saying. “ ‘Come now. You are making this up.’ ”

The abuse only continued, with both Coffin and Clarridge molesting him. His mother did not believe him, Sweeney said.

“I was left alone at that school,” Sweeney said, struggling not to cry. “All alone. By myself, surrounded by a ring of pedophiles.”

Coffin died in 1981.

Fessenden has said 17 victims, including Sweeney, have come forward since 2011 and complained of alleged abuse by at least five former staffers. Greaves would be the 18th student to come out publicly about abuse. The lawsuit filed by Sweeney and Greaves identifies 14 men, most of them former Fessenden employees, who abused other students or knew of the abuse and conspired to hide it from the public and alumni.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who initially represented the 17 former students, said 16 of them had settled with the school. (Fessenden said the settlements were for $100,000 each.) Sweeney is the only former student who has not settled.

“John’s goals are wider than taking care of his own problems,” Durso said. “He wants to see that anyone who was abused there gets justice.”

Garabedian said he is now investigating four new claims of sexual misconduct at the hands of former Fessenden employees who have been previously identified as abusers.

“The sexual abuse at The Fessenden School was and might still be as unchecked and harmful as the sexual abuse at any other private school,” he said.

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.