Aftermath in Adams: Lifelong trauma chases victims of abuse at Adams Memorial Junior High

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ADAMS — In the week since The Eagle published accounts of sexual assaults at the former Adams Memorial Junior High, approximately a dozen more men have said they too were victims.

All have faced life-long consequences, experts say, enduring trauma that followed them into adulthood, affecting their relationships, family ties, health and even brain development.

On Tuesday, the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District said it is open to hearing claims from those who say they were abused by former custodian Clement St. Hilaire, now 94. Any former student can bring those reports directly to interim Superintendent Robert Putnam.

St. Hilaire has admitted to assaulting two former students, both of them now 53, in 1976.

"It's sad, but not surprising that additional victims are coming forward," said attorney Matthew Fogelman, who represents the first two men who contacted the Eagle and received calls from several others in the last week.

"With these types of cases, there usually are (more victims)," Fogelman said. "A typical abuser doesn't just stop at one person."

"We're seeing that play out," he said. "These types of people often times will victimize many, many people."

The Eagle has not been able to verify all of the men's' claims, but an attorney says it is unlikely the accounts are fabrications.

"I've never seen anybody voluntarily come forward and say, `I was the victim of sex abuse as a child,' solely for some other motive other than it really happened and it's really true," said attorney John P. Connor.

"Is it possible someone could do that? Absolutely," Connor said. "Is it possible 10, 11, 12 people do that? I think in my view, it would just not be a fathomable thing, I could not see that happening."

"Nobody wants to be in that position, nobody wants to say, `I was sexually abused as a child," said Connor, who has represented victims of sexual abuse.

Putnam could not be reached Friday to provide the total number of reports made to date.

Patterns clear

According to victims, St. Hilaire hired boys at the former Adams Memorial Junior High to assist him after school and weekends to do custodial work, paying them a few dollars.

He'd ask the boys inappropriate sexually themed questions and show them pornography and, eventually, get them alone and assault them.

The practice is known as grooming.

"(A perpetrator) devises ways to become familiar with the child's personality and can assess whether a child might be vulnerable in some way, physically or emotionally," Connor said. "(The abuser) works and grooms that child to exploit whatever they see they can possibly exploit."

Oftent, predators will target children who have a psychological void in their lives, like the one created by the absence of a parental figure, and then exploit that for their "perverted needs," said David O'Regan, a facilitator for the Boston and Worcester chapters of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). The group has expanded its outreach to include those who have been sexually assaulted as children by people other than members of the clergy.

"The perpetrator is ... finding a way in," Connor said. "This could happen to any child."

Abusers work, meantime, to deflect community suspicion.

"(Perpetrators) will groom themselves to operate in society above suspicion, presenting themselves to the outside world as someone who could never be capable of such a thing," O'Regan said.

"People are often astonished when a perpetrator is discovered," Connor said. "It could be somebody everybody held in high esteem."

Effects long-lasting

The effects of childhood sexual abuse can be devastating and long-lasting.

"The victim takes on the guilt, shame and humiliation that's transferred from the predator," O'Regan said.

Victims can suffer from low self-esteem and depression and develop trust issues with authority figures, according to O'Regan. As they get older, victims often veer into self-harm including drug and alcohol abuse.

Steven Procopio, an independent consultant and expert on boys, men and trauma, said long-term effects can include PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders. Abuse victims can face challenges in decision-making as they struggle to become self-aware and mature.

Connor said many victims create psychological barriers to shield themselves from dealing with their assault. Eventually, those barriers can collapse.

"They ultimately have to face the reality of what happened to them and it's often very, very painful and difficult," Connor said. "It often takes years and years to get to that point."

O'Regan said the long-term effects on victims are typically no different whether the perpetrator is male or female.

"The psychological damage to the child is the same," he said.

No way out

Some of the men in the St. Hilaire cases said they were assaulted dozens of times. One young man who reported his assault to his parents and the school in 1976 said the abuse occurred once.

Procopio said predators develop a psychological hold on their victims which makes it difficult to extricate themselves.

"Perpetrators are astute at keeping a kid in a state of confusion," he said.

Children often begin to question themselves in the face of such abuse, he said. They wonder how they can disclose the abuse and to whom. They are fearful of its effect on their sexual identity and what disclosing it would do to their family.

Procopio compared a child's reluctance to come forward and report a predator's actions to someone who remains in an abusive relationship. They stay because they don't know how to get out, despite the discomfort.

Returning to an abusive situation should not be considered consent, said Connor. "This is never, ever the fault of the victim," he said. It

Males who have been sexually assaulted as children typically delay reporting for at least 20 years, Procopio said.

As in the Adams case, it isn't unusual for victims to come forward 40 years or so after the fact — and do so then after other abuse claims are made public, Connor said. "Many victims of childhood sexual abuse have never spoken a word of it to anyone sometimes into their 40s 50s and even 60s."

Then, when someone comes forward, other victims may feel empowered enough to do the same.

"For many, it's the beginning of their true healing." said Connor.

Legal challenges

Prosecuting perpetrators of child sex abuse or pursuing civil cases against them can also prove difficult, Connor said.

The passage of time, availability of witnesses, people's fading memories, a lack of physical evidence and statutes of limitations can all affect pursuing a case, said Connor.

In the meantime, there are warning signs for parents and caregivers, said Procopio.

Be wary of adults becoming overly interested in relationships with children, or sudden shifts in a child's behavior, including drops in school performance, losing interest in pastimes or an unexplained change in mood.

Connor notes that adolescent children can exhibit those types of changes for reasons that have nothing to do with sexual abuse.

"It's hard to say what to look for," he said.

The sooner a victim can get into counseling, the better, O'Regan said, in order to begin to process what happened to them.

"We can heal," he said. "The worst of it is over, we live in the present."

Reach staff writer Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249 or @BobDunn413 on Twitter


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