‘This is a place that destroyed children’
Former Bishop’s College students – plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit – describe the elite private school in the 1950s and ’60s as a house of horrors and dirty secrets, where a culture of abuse reigned unchecked
By Hubert Bauch, The Gazette
MONTREAL – Students and alumni of Bishop’s College School are generally regarded as members of a privileged class. For some, however, the privilege of a BCS education came at a terrible price. Not in fees, but in shocking, soul-eroding, life-wrecking abuse visited on them there. Long buried, their memories of Bishop’s school days of yore have lately risen to haunt the esteemed institution.
It has long been one of Canada’s elite private schools, founded in 1836, a year before Queen Victoria ascended the throne and three decades before Confederation. It sits in splendid baronial style on 350 bucolic Eastern Townships acres at Lennoxville. Its accoutrements include the country’s oldest continuous cadet corps, affiliated with the Black Watch.
It has been the prep school for the scions of some of Montreal’s finest old families. It has produced graduates distinguished in an array of fields. They include early last-century magnate Sir Montagu Allan and later last-century newspaper tycoon Conrad Black; author Michael Ondaatje and moviemaker Paul Almond; two senators, the late Hartland Molson and current Colin Kenny; celebrated radio raconteur Stuart McLean; inventor Reginald Fessenden, who pioneered radio transmission, and Scott Abbott, who invented Trivial Pursuit.
For others, their BCS “education” put them on a downward life path, to alcoholism, drug abuse, psychological disorder, failed relationships and career instability. Their lately rendered accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of an ordained faculty member and rampant corporal punishment – routine floggings on bared backsides with canes, steel-edged rulers and hockey sticks – echo recent tales of abuse in Catholic parishes and Indian Residential Schools, as well as other upper-crust schools, including Montreal’s Selwyn House and Toronto’s Upper Canada College.
More than three dozen former students banded together to launch a lawsuit against the school, which is now coming to a head, demanding $15 million in compensation, full disclosure and apology.
The stories they tell, in the claimant statements and in interviews with The Gazette this week, depict the school in their time – the 1950s and ’60s – as a house of horrors and dirty secrets, where a culture of abuse reigned unchecked.
Their hair-raising accounts and accusations are dolefully consistent.
“This is a place that destroyed children,” said David (not his real name) who is among the plaintiffs. “You cannot imagine what went on in what was supposed to be a refined and civilized place.”
Peter, another former student, said: “Corporal punishment was legal then, but this went way beyond normal classroom corporal punishment. It was a culture of abuse, of disciplinary punishment that was exploited and went way overboard.”
(Names of claimants are protected by court order and those quoted in this story are given pseudonyms.)
Both David and Peter are among those who say they were sexually molested by the only alleged culprit named in the suit, Rev. Harold Forster, who served at the school from 1953 to ’62 as a teacher, chaplain, choirmaster and house master, whose predatory routine, it is said, was to call miscreant students to his quarters, have them strip and bend over his knees, then alternately spank and fondle their buttocks and sometimes their genitals.
Peter typically recounts how he got the treatment from Forster who ordered him into his bedroom early one morning, Peter naked and Forster clad in a dressing gown.
“He took a dark brown coloured hairbrush from a nearby chair and started hitting my buttocks violently with the hairbrush. He was breathing hard and making funny noises with his mouth. After four or five blows he massaged my buttocks with his hand in a circular motion. Then he resumed with the brush for another four or five hard strokes, then again the circular massage. It went on for at least 20 minutes, all the time making weird sounds with his mouth.”
Richard recalls him doing it right in the open to him with a ruler that he called Excalibur, after King Arthur’s mythical sword.
“At least once a week he used it on me in front of the class. It was how he used it that was degrading. He used to smooth out my pants and feel down between my legs and squeeze me a little. All this in front of the class.”
At the time from which the allegations arise, BCS was an all-boys’ school with a student body of mostly boarders.
It went co-ed in 1972 when it merged with King’s Hall private school for girls in nearby Compton.
It modelled itself after elite British “public schools” where routine caning and “fagging” – institutionalized hazing of younger boys by seniors – were integral to school culture. Beatings were administered not only by staff, but also senior boys, designated prefects or head boys, who were given licence by school authorities to inflict caning and other humiliations on their younger schoolmates as they saw fit.
“For the slightest infraction we’d be sent to the prefects’ room for discipline,” said Frank. “We had to make their beds, shine their shoes, tidy their rooms, all that kind of stuff. We had to cater to their needs and if it wasn’t to their satisfaction they had licence to do to us what they wanted.”
“You had 17-, 18-year-olds hitting 12-year-olds with canes,” said David. “It’s unbelievable. It shouldn’t be very difficult to understand that large boys being allowed to beat little boys is just wrong.”
There was heavy pressure on the boys not to complain and to adhere to an institutional code that what happened at the school stayed at the school.
Peter recalls being called into a classroom with other boys before a Christmas break to be threatened by Forster.
“He said whoever tells parents about the goings-on in the school will be beaten within an inch of their lives and there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Some say they were too frightened to speak up, others too ashamed and confused. In other cases the parents simply refused to believe them.
Sam says he told his father he was being molested by Forster and begged to be taken out of the school. “But my father was adamant that I stay. He didn’t believe any of that. It was something people didn’t talk about in those days.”
Sam says he did persuade his father after he got another boy to tell of his own molestation. His father went to the headmaster and Forster was fired.
“Even at that he was allowed to finish out the term and got sent off with a letter of recommendation. Nothing was ever said because we had to protect the reputation of the school, can you believe it?”
(Forster went on to teach at a private school in Jamaica and top-drawer Harrow school in Britain before he was killed in a 1967 train crash.)
Another common thread in the stories of those molested is that they repressed the memories of the abuse until middle age or failed to connect it to their misfortunes as their adult lives unravelled, not until they talked about it to partners or psychiatrists.
“For years I buried it,” said Sam. “I never had any idea that it ever affected me. I just thought I was crazy. Why I couldn’t hold a job or get along with people, why I had an explosive, crazy temper when I was drunk. I know now.”
What the plaintiffs want is compensation to help them through their encroaching old age. More than the $1 million tentative agreement worked out by their lawyers and the school which, after lawyers’ fees and other expenses would net them roughly $15,000 apiece.
They also want acknowledgement by the school of the harm done to them.
“What we want is for someone to to say, ‘Yeah, we really screwed up here,’ to recognize the damage that was done,” said Sam, who verged on suicide at one point.
It’s what the school should do, said John Pratt (real name) who was both a student and teacher at BCS in the period and is part of a small group of alumni who have organized a “truth and reconciliation” initiative to intercede between the school and the plaintiffs.
He said he was never sexually molested and took the beatings like most others as just the way things were. “I was caned like any other boy, but never thought of it as a problem. That was the culture and it never occurred to me there was anything wrong with it. It was what you got used to.”
Speaking for the school, board chairman Kurt Johnson said efforts have been made to reach out to those who say they were damaged by the school. “We have worked to address this very serious issue with respect, sensitivity and concern for all those involved, in the best interest of both former and present students.” He noted that the allegations stem from half a century ago, and that no one from those bad old days is still connected with the school. “It is a very different place today. It’s a different world.”
But Pratt and others maintain the school’s response has been grudging at best. He said he still loves his old school, which to him was like family, but feels let down by it now that he’s heard the horror stories, which to him have the ring of truth. He said he attended a BCS annual meeting two years ago and there wasn’t any mention of the lawsuit, launched two years before. “They say they want to help, but they haven’t really so far.”
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