Hotchkiss School Changes Sex Abuse Investigators after Outcry over Bias
By Josh Kovner
February 15, 2018
|The Hotchkiss School, one of the exclusive New England preparatory schools grappling with sexual abuse allegations from former students, has dismissed its independent investigator following an outcry from alumni. (Hartford Courant file photo)|
The Hotchkiss School, one of the exclusive New England preparatory schools grappling with sexual abuse allegations from former students, has dismissed its independent investigator following an outcry from alumni who learned he had represented institutions, including the Norwich diocese, that had been accused in sexual assault cases.
“We’ve switched investigators,” Hellen Hom-Diamond, the Lakeville school’s communication director, said Thursday when asked whether Simsbury lawyer James Sconzo had been relieved of duties he had conducted since June 2016. Sconzo did not immediately return a telephone message Thursday afternoon.
“In June 2016, we retained a third party to conduct an investigation into reports of sexual misconduct by members of the faculty or staff that occurred at any time in the School’s history,” begins a post on the Hotchkiss website.
In new language added to the post on Thursday, the school said, “Based on feedback from the alumni community, we have retained the law firm of Locke Lord to take over the investigation and build upon the considerable work that has been done to date.”
The school said the investigation “will be wholly independent and will conclude with the release of a public report …”
In January, attorney Roderick MacLeish wrote to Craig Bradley, the Hotchkiss head of school, on behalf of a group called Hotchkiss Alumni for Reconciliation and Healing.
MacLeish cited what he said were the factors that should disqualify Sconzo from investigating sexual abuse at the school. MacLeish asked Bradley to remove Sconzo and work with the alumni group “to procure an investigator who will rightly be perceived as independent.”
In the letter to Bradley, MacLeish said Sconzo “does not meet the criteria of an independent investigator. He and his former law firm are known for representing the Catholic Diocese of Norwich in cases involving victims of clergy abuse. He has also represented at least one religious order in a case involving clergy sexual abuse.”
MacLeish said that if Sconzo disclosed his work background to alleged victims at Hotchkiss, those facts would likely have a chilling effect. If Sconzo didn’t disclose his background, then alleged victims “are not being provided with critical information before making a decision to talk to him.”
In a letter to students, faculty and alumni dated Thursday, Hotchkiss announced it had engaged Boston-based lawyer Allison O’Neil of Locke Lord “to serve as an independent investigator into reports of adult sexual misconduct with Hotchkiss students.”
School officials wrote that in engaging Sconzo and his law firm in June 2016, their aim was “to uncover the truth, to recognize and apologize for prior misdeeds, to support survivors …”
“Our intent was that the investigation would be conducted with compassion and without bias,” the Hotchkiss letter continues. “We appreciate that this can only happen if the investigation has the full confidence and participation of the community.”
The school said that the alumni group recently “brought to our attention concerns regarding the sensitivity of the investigation based on certain interactions in which participants felt uncomfortable. They also raised concerns regarding the appearance of objectivity of the investigation based on the investigator's previous representation of defendants in sexual abuse cases involving the Catholic Church in Connecticut and others.”
Hotchkiss School officials said in the expanded website post that O’Neil has “substantial experience in sexual abuse investigations.”
In one case, a former male student at Hotchkiss alleges in a 2015 lawsuit that he was subjected to ritual hazing of a sexual nature by other students and was raped by a teacher during his two years at the Hotchkiss School in the mid-1980s.
The former student alleges that Hotchkiss leaders "tolerated sexual assaults, sexually violent hazing and pedophilia."