Old News, New News: The St. Andrew's School Sex Scandal

I said a couple of weeks ago that I was shifting away from commenting on things Anglican, but my past has caught up with me again.  As I have mentioned more than once, I am an alumnus of the St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, FL, and same school is now caught up in a sex scandal.  I hadn’t been paying much attention, but a friend brought up some things and I decided to do a little research.

I found that the best “executive summary” of the business can be found at the Episcopal Café.  That’s one of the most prominent blogs on the left side of the Anglican blogosphere.  I don’t pretend to be in the same rank on the other side, but it brings me to my first point: St. Andrew’s was and is a very liberal institution, one that didn’t commend left-wing Anglicanism to me in a very convincing way.

Although things really broke in the Spring–and Headmaster Peter Benedict resigned at the time–it’s still an ongoing business, as Interim Head of School Jim Byer discussed in an email to the alumni:

At the same time, the start of this school year has been a difficult time for all of us at Saint Andrew’s, and I appreciate your interest and concern for what has happened here. Many of you are aware of the results of two independent investigations related to violations of faculty/student boundaries and inadequate policies and procedures to protect students, as well as the stories that have been reported in the local media.

Please know that our school is committed to student safety, and I fully expect our community will be stronger and safer as the result of improvements in this regard. We have instituted mandatory child abuse annual training for all faculty and staff in accordance with Florida Department of Education training curriculum, we will hold accountable all who interact and engage with students on a daily basis, and we have engaged qualified, trained professionals to thoroughly examine and closely supervise the residential life program. I am also engaging an expert to oversee the restructuring of all aspects of risk in the school, to further safeguard the welfare of each and every student here.

That said, let me make some comments on the situation:

  1. The fact that the school decided to “lawyer up” tells me that something bad has really happened.  Colleges and universities have gone “whole hog” on this subject due to the “Dear Colleague” letter that the Department of Education sent out, but this is the result, IMHO, of things that happened at the school.  Bringing the attorneys in shield the investigation using attorney-client privilege, and coupled with the raft of confidentiality requirements in education, it’s pretty simple to put the “quietus” (a good TN expression) on something like this.
  2. Contrary to what some of the commenters on the Café said, St. Andrew’s was not started in response to the integration of public schools in Palm Beach County.  It was started as a boarding school to replicate the prep schools in New England and the Northeast.  Social trends and the explosive growth of South Florida have converted it primarily into a day school, where it addressed another issue: the lacklustre quality of Florida’s public schools.
  3. One thing that St. Andrew’s has always been sensitive to a fault about is its community reputation.  Although any institution needs to pay attention to that, in St. Andrew’s case there’s a very relevant issue: the school wasn’t properly endowed when it was set up, the seed money largely going to physical plant.  Its early survival was a difficult proposition and it’s not as ready as some of its older, prep school counterparts to take the hit that a scandal such as this brings.
  4. Unless the years I was there were an anomaly, I don’t think that St. Andrew’s has an innate culture which encourages sexual harassment of the students by the faculty.  That may be relevant in considering the role of the Rev. George Andrews, Headmaster from 1989 to 2008.  He is involved in the sex abuse scandals at St. George’s School in Middletown, RI, one of the New England boarding schools involved in their own imbroglio.  In spite of the founders’ intentions, St. Andrew’s had a dynamic that was different from its Northern counterparts, something faculty who had taught at both noted.

As is always the case in situations like this, it will be a long time before the truth comes out, if it ever does completely.  But South Florida in general and St. Andrew’s in particular was a hard schoolmaster on many issues of a sexual nature, albeit for reasons other than the ones in this scandal.  I explored many of these issues about a decade ago in my book The Ten Weeks.

What I am about to say will probably make some people blow their stack.   That isn’t hard to do these days.  But I think this is the time to say it.  We live in a society with two polar opposite ideas on this subject, and they cannot stay conjoined indefinitely.

I’ve consistently defended the Christian sexual ethic on this blog.  One important corollary to that is that everyone is inviolate in their person with regard to sexual activity, i.e., it’s entirely voluntary.  I want to make it clear that I support that corollary.  That’s the underlying assumption to things such as the prohibition against rape, molestation, and sexual harassment.  The persistence of these is part of our post-Christian condition.

On the other hand, we have the pervasive ethic these days that sexual activity is a necessity for life (not in a procreative sense,) and that one is defined by same.  A corollary to that is that people who refrain, temporarily or permanently, are a) not really human and b) need to be brought into line, most usually these days by peer pressure, or now the internet.

Given the realities of the human condition, I believe that sooner or later society will realise that, as my father would say, we “have a no-fit going here.”  Our educational system, which is expected in inculcate all kinds of values it was not designed to do, will be brought to bear on making sex education not only a “how-to” project but to make sure the lesson is carried out.

When that happens, the scandal such as is unfolding at St. Andrew’s will no longer be about doing something wrong as it will be about doing something outside of proper channels.  In other words, after all the years of such scandals rocking the Catholic Church, boarding schools, etc., they will no longer be scandals, and the victims who have not “kept up” with the times will be left in the lurch.

Whether our civilisation, such as it is, will survive to that point is another matter altogether.  But the business of same-sex civil marriage shows that public opinion, led by élite opinion, can turn around very quickly under the right conditions.  As always, I doubt most people are ready to face a societal flip of that kind, but just because we’re not ready to face it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

6 Replies to “Old News, New News: The St. Andrew's School Sex Scandal”

  1. Sorry to see your school has had these problems.

    You raise a big question here: what is the connection between culture especially liberal anglicanism and abuse?

    I have very mixed thoughts from my own unfortunate experience being sexually harassed as a young adult by a very liberal female priest at a very wealthy church in Southern California. On one hand, the gnostic insider dynamic of liberal TEC types combined with the focus on the spirit over the (extremely elastically interpreted) law is dangerous. I think that the bad priest I knew was used to dealing with two sets of rules and double meanings and that made her careless about boundaries. There was also probably something of an initiation aspect to her crossing the line with me, sort of an unconscious “become one of us, love makes everything ok.” But there were other factors too that may or may not apply to high schools. My ex-church was super into secular therapy. The bad priest was all about identifying and soothing psychological needs and feelings. That can get intimate quickly particularly when as you note, sexual activity is seen as necessary and identifying and there’s little toleration for difference. I think that approach and attitude can work in a secular medical environment with much stronger boundaries/isolation, legal protections, and training in things like transference. I don’t think it can work in a church that intends for priests to live, volunteer, and worship alongside parishioners. Combining secular style counseling with the church is like performing surgery on the altar–dangerously exposed.

    But on the other hand, I will give the liberals this. They love feelings; they love protesting the powerful, and they love identifying with victims, so if you make a big, public fuss about how hurt you are, they will respond. Of course, this means exposing all one’s emotions for public judgment and consumption and pressures one to perform as a victim, which is self-destructive. But it’s something. The thinking seems to be, “sex is great; we’re really, really uncomfortable with talking about the wrongness of sex act, but if someone makes you feel creepy or hurts you, then we can still condemn that and be sensitive to you.” That’s a standard liberal response. It’s pretty much what you wrote about abuse being perceived as not necessarily wrong so much as inappropriately outside of proper channels. We seem to have already reached that point at least a decade ago or at least my old parish did. The danger is that the emphasis becomes helping the victim via more therapy without confronting the perpetrator. Maybe that’s the trans-human future you fear at the end of your post, one where moral damage is “psychologically fixed” but justice is denied.

    Of course, if you’re talking about the power structure, that’s another story because the top people (not all but most) just want to sweep everything under the rug because they care more about feeling like angels and looking good than actually helping people or principles like integrity or responsibility. IMHO.

    The interesting contrast in all this is the Catholic church, which is conservative but still had nightmare problems. The best stuff I’ve seen there on the culture-abuse connection is by sort of liberals like Snipe who argue that clericalism and clerical secrecy set up much more trouble than abstinence or traditional church teachings on the body.

    That said, because I was a straight, white man harassed by a woman I probably faced much more of an uphill battle in dealing with the bishop. So that was a way I was “left in the lurch” for not keeping up with the times. But it’s not like a super traditional macho culture would have been more sensitive to my complaint. Honestly, my take away was that women should not be priests over men. Maybe, no priest should be “over” anyone, and it’s great to have women in liberal churches in positions of power looking out for kids, but there’s still some deep, deep problem with having a female priest in a parish with males. Everyone gets too touchy-feely. The mission of the church gets to far from going out into the world to fight the good fight and more about this pseduo-boundary free return to innocence and suckled comfort. When everyone is one, you are either in the womb or a narcissistic cult.

    I’m not sure how to fix all this or how it might carry over to your high school. I think the TEC should either (i) abandon the priesthood and all theology becoming a totally secular (Quaker) meeting house to promote liberal values and community along with pretty much all truth claims or promises of help or (ii) rededicate the priesthood to service from below and go live in loin clothes in the desert for 40 years with no money.

    1. Wow, you really kind of blew me away with this one. You’ve touched on many issues here.

      First: my point about liberals and sex scandals is that their approach is basically duplicitous. They say that sex is like winning was to Vince Lombardi, but OTOH they come up with the sexual harassment regulations such as universities are pushed to adopt these days. Universal sexualisation always has serious collateral damage; they want to have the former and then turn around and punish the latter. No where was that more on display than the RCC abuse scandals. Now it was a good thing for the abusers to get their just deserts. But our liberal media pushed the issue with gusto, to hold up the relatively conservative RCC as an example of what an evil, right-wing institution full of unmarried pedophiles will do. But your experience–and I doubt it’s unique–shows that it cuts both ways. (It’s interesting to note that the statistics show that RCC priests are no more prone to commit sexual abuse than their married Protestant counterparts.)

      As I said, sooner or later there will be a tipping point, which will show that scandals are useful then they suit your purpose and to be discarded when they no longer do.

      As far as psychological (or “clinical”) training is concerned, it’s become more common amongst clergy, conservative and liberal alike. With chaplaincy it’s almost a necessity, as I found out working for the Church of God Chaplains Commission in the last decade. But clinical training is a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands, especially when it supersedes basic Christian principles, as it has done with liberal clergy. With them, psychobabble is just about all that comes out. The problem in our society is that our clinically trained professionals have replaced the clergy for many people, and the church–liberal and conservative–is trying to “keep up with the Jonses.” There’s always a high price doing that. For conservative churches, the problem may soon be solved: the LGBT rights people are about to have the license of any registered professional counsellor revoked for not going along with their line, at which point conservative ministers can get back to doing what they’re supposed to be doing. (There are dangers to clergy doing counselling, but that’s another issue…)

      As far as women in the “priesthood” (I’ve never been comfortable with that term in the Anglican/Episcopal world) is concerned, I think that TEC did it for the wrong reasons. They did it as a form of secular liberation rather than a way of furthering the Gospel, and the results speak for themselves. Some of what you say reminds me of people who came out of covenant communities; they’re embittered because they were brought up to reverence the authorities in their parish (the priests) and then were betrayed by the ones they chose in the communities. I’ve always had a little more jaundiced view of authority which helped me to dodge the bullet when I needed to. Unfortunately experience tells me that getting away from the emphasis on authority in Christian churches is easier said than done; the church being “authoritative” (and by extension its ministers) is what people are looking for these days.

      Turning to bishops, if your bishop was Jon Bruno your suspicions were correct; he told the LA Times he was no angel and he’s lived up to that ever since. And as far as liberals “protesting the powerful” that’s true until they arrive. I always felt that the Episcopal Church in particular was “playing both sides of the street” by combining its lofty demographics with its radical theology. More Episcopalians, clergy and lay alike, need to follow Jesus’ advice to the rich young ruler rather than inflict their radical agenda on the rest of us.

      God bless and thanks again.

  2. Many thanks for your kind words and useful insights.

    I agree that the liberal approach to sex is inconsistent and dangerous, but I’m not sure that it is deliberately duplicitous at least at the rank and file level at least at first. When I think back on my ex-parish, I’m struck by how the younger priests in particular went out of their way to distance themselves from appearing frumpy or frigid. But they couldn’t be flagrant about it either for fear of causing offense. So they ended up being selective; they kind of assumed that everyone was more sexually active than they probably were and dropped hints about how hip they were with that while being more reserved about the dorkier young people. That immediately sets up the damaging insider-outsider dynamic I talked about. Of course, the same thing happens with theology too. All of that is a bad first step on the slippery slope, but it was tolerable.

    Things went downhill with the bad priest because she herself was sexually active with at least one man around the parish and maybe another. They were older than me, but there was this really negative atmosphere around their group that I couldn’t put my finger on. I tried to keep my head down but there was this weird jealousy and unspoken aggression mixed with knowing condescension and gossip that made sense only someone spilled the beans to me years later. Technically, one of the guys involved wasn’t a member of the parish, but he had many friends who were and he would show up to events like the Christmas party as a member of the parish. It was like a really shady, uncomfortable junior high school, just petty and immature. Also, there were a number of much older male parishioners who would hit on the the priests very directly.

    I should note that the priests at this parish were all super-chill about authority. They were your friend and confidant who might push you to volunteer but basically were at your level. Unless you were noncompliant or actively defiant in which case they were authoritarian and lawyerly. Slavoj Zizek talks about the difference between traditional and postmodern authority in similar terms. He says Big Brother is like a parent who demands you visit your boring grandparents. The postmodern Little Brother is more like a parent who presents you with a (false) choice in visiting your grandparent but guilts you into going, saying how much your visit will mean, how much fun it will be. This kind of parent is actually worse psychologically because he demands your obedience and your happiness. For a priest, particularly one providing counseling this is an extremely dangerous setup because it mixes repressed authority with intimacy, which is confusing and quasi-incestous. Your dad shouldn’t be your best friend, and you shouldn’t go to your priest for objectivity about your life and how it fits or misses the Gospels, then turn around and hang out at Starbucks. Not coincidentally, my bad female priest over time developed a posse of gay men. They seemed to me to have this Gloria Vanderbilt/Anderson Cooper dynamic of trying to shock each other and share fashion tips. I know this is textbook dark ages Freudianism on my part, but I felt really bad for the gay guys in question because I feared that having a sexually overbearing mother figure might have pushed them further into homosexuality. When the bad priest was flirty with me, I felt super gross and didn’t want anything to do with my girlfriend at the time for a little while. It had to be worse for the sexually confused. I come across as straight, but even I was asked when I first joined the parish if I was gay by two different priest. I think they were disappointed I wasn’t gay and couldn’t be extra included under their personal aegis.

    What I’m trying to paint is a picture of how liberalism caused problems. It was actually pretty subtle in some ways. And you’re right that there were regulations in place à la universities to try to contain what had been unleashed. There must be some sort of engineering metaphor here for violating big safety principles but then tacking on a heap of ad hoc gimmicky fixes. It’s like they said, ” no height restrictions or seat belts on the roller coaster, but we will have an enormous chain of nets underneath and a crack first aid team.”

    And yet, I think that the key problem in my situation at least (other than mixing counseling with parish life) was that my priest was a very disturbed person. She got in trouble for theft at one point; she lied about little things frequently; she was super insecure; she was in therapy for years. I don’t know what the exact problem was, but a major personality disorder struck me as not unlikely in retrospect. I honestly don’t think she had super dark intentions so much as deeply impaired empathy and weirdly rigid selfishness. What I’m getting at is that sin is ultimately personal. Heresy is sinful. It’s a sin of the mind, but to me sinful behaviors enact more whether that’s vanity or pride or whatever. Huck Finn overcome bad theology to be fair and kind to Jim.

    I think sin can take liberal or conservative forms. As you say, “it cuts both ways.” Liberalism seems to have caused some big problems in my situation, but there more more factors at play too. And there was a hero priest at the parish who was super liberal but suffered major sacrifices in trying to fight for right. Probably, none is this is surprising to you.

    The really hard question in all this for me is how to prevent these sorts of problems. How to promote moral seriousness without it backfiring when the heart is deceitful above all things? A sixty minute powerpoint by the church’s insurance company doesn’t cut it.

    I’m not going to say anything on this blog about Bishop Bruno that might open either of us to being sued by him. It’s hard to imagine that suing one’s flock is conducive to a pastoral mindset or inspires trust. And the defensiveness of litigation is totally at odds with the cross.

    I grant that I might be wrong about female priests. You’re totally correct about how they came to be in TEC. But that doesn’t logically entail that they must be a bad thing. Maybe I’m burned and have lost my objectivity here, but I remember having this weird intuition once that important lines of communication and worship had been compressed and blurred by having a female priest, certainly a bad one.

    1. I think a great deal of the duplicity is due to an unresolved conflict in modern and post-modern feminism. That conflict needs to be resolved before a raft of regulations is inflicted on the rest of society. In engineering, we say that safety isn’t just added on, it’s designed into the product or structure to start with. That’s a serious defect in the sexuality construct that liberalism has pushed upon us.

      Your insights about how liberals “do” authority have been very helpful. I agree, they’re psychologically destructive.

      I’m not sure, in this fallen world, that such things can be definitively prevented, but the way liberals are going about is certainly not going to make things better.

      As far as Jon Bruno is concerned, you should read the posts of the Anglican Curmudgeon.

  3. Thanks.

    And yes, the Anglican Curmudgeon blog along with others was very helpful to me when I was disentangling myself from this mess several years ago. I was so far behind liberal lines/wrapped up in trying to master basic adult Christianity that I really had no idea of the conservative position or the state of TEC.

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