Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

For Solebury abuse survivors, grand jury report offered chance to be heard

Carole Trickett wanted to break the code of silence.

That's why the 79-year-old traveled from Maine to Pennsylvania almost three years ago to tell a Bucks County grand jury about sexual abuse she experienced decades earlier at Solebury School.

Trickett recounted how her language teacher there drew her into a sexual relationship when she was a teen in the 1950s. She became one of at least six Solebury students allegedly preyed upon by adults at the prestigious boarding school -- and whose accounts helped form the grand jury report released Wednesday that chronicled years of ignored or unreported abuse.

Nearly all of the allegations were too old to be prosecuted or litigated, though one accuser promises a lawsuit and could still press for criminal charges. For others, the grand jury investigation gave them a chance, finally, to be heard -- and expose a culture they believe affected other students as well.

"I know I will never overcome this, I really do," Trickett told the Inquirer on Friday. "I hate knowing that -- but we need to at least have the door open" so other victims can speak out.

Three of the six victims spoke late last week to the Inquirer directly or through representatives. Each said they hoped doing so would encourage others to come forward and, perhaps, prevent future abuse.

"One thing she hopes is that this never happens to anybody again," said Jordan Merson, the lawyer for the youngest victim, a 2005 graduate who told the grand jury that her gym teacher started a sexual relationship with her at Solebury. "Getting the word out about this, maybe it'll save somebody else from a similar fate."

The case rocked a small private-school community while adding to a growing list of such scandals across the state -- and it came as the state Senate last week passed a bill that seeks to give future child sex-abuse victims more time to bring criminal or civil charges against their assailants.

The grand jury's report blamed neglectful school administrators at a private school with an informal culture and hazy boundaries that allowed teachers to have relationships and sexual contact with students. It recommended the school implement 18 measures to prevent sex abuse.

Located in New Hope, Solebury School today has 220 students, 79 of whom live on campus. Day students pay $35,000 annually; boarders pay $52,000 -- plus fees for other programs. Its "progressive" approach has traditionally meant students call teachers by their first names. Many teachers also live on campus.

One former student, Peter Robbins, drove from Albany, N.Y., to testify in 2014. Robbins described to the grand jury being anally raped after blacking out in the presence of a male teacher and another adult while a senior in 1968. A teacher and the headmaster knew about the violent attack but did nothing, he said.

Robbins ultimately became an elementary-school teacher and earned a Ph.D. in psychology, but was in therapy for many years as an adult, his husband, Richard Klaus, told the Inquirer.

"We want justice, plain and simple. The laws do not protect the innocent. The laws protect the guilty criminals," Klaus said, citing the statute of limitations that prevents people from suing offenders at any time.

The couple hope the grand jury report will encourage other victims to come forward. They viewed Robbins' testimony as a way to "stand up" for those without a voice, Klaus said.

"We cannot hide in the shadows anymore," he said. "It's just wrong."

The report names teachers and administrators, many still living, as people who could have been charged in various eras with sexual assault or failure to report abuse. Most interviewed denied wrongdoing or invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

On Wednesday, headmaster Tom Wilschutz said school officials would ensure that they "have the most comprehensive policies, procedures, and training to protect the students who are in our care."

The 2005 graduate, who wanted to protect her identity, plans to file a civil suit against Solebury School next week, her lawyer said. He called Wilschutz's statement "a sham" and said he believed the school has not accepted responsibility for the crimes.

The woman, now 27, is the only victim cited by investigators whose accusation falls within the criminal statute of limitations. The grand jury report incorrectly said she did not want to bring charges, Merson said. He told the Inquirer on Friday that she is close to making a decision about whether to pursue the case criminally.

That, too, was present in the woman's mind when she decided to testify, he said. "She carries a burden for all the victims of abuse at Solebury," he said. "The mantle has really been passed to [her] ... to hold this school accountable and responsible for what's gone on for the past 50 years, and that is not lost on her."

One Solebury School teacher has been prosecuted for a sexual relationship with a student: David Chadwick, sentenced to prison in 1996 for abusing a female student, who did not testify before the grand jury. Chadwick also settled a civil lawsuit with the girl's family for about $700,000.

But almost two decades passed before the scope of the past abuse -- or the pattern of indifference by administrators -- became public. Trickett was a driving force in making that happen.

She had been attempting to meet with school officials about her abuse since the 1990s, she said. In 2014, she shared her story again, this time with Wilschutz.

After they spoke, Wilschutz sent an open letter to the campus community acknowledging past abuse by adults at Solebury School, and the school reported abuse to authorities. That year, the grand jury investigation began.

Trickett will celebrate her 80th birthday in March. She had a career as a social worker and raised four daughters. She wishes her husband, who died in 2015, were alive to see the report. She hopes the public pays attention to it.

"The end result is that I want the school to be held responsible for the entirety of its history," Trickett said. "It's got to be more prominent, because Solebury will just continue to, in a sense ... keep it quiet."