Mary Grace Gallagher: The Capital didn’t report on Key School sex abuse allegations 25 years ago. It was a different world.
By Mary Grace Gallagher
January 18, 2020
|The former location of The Capital Gazette Newspaper at 2000 Capital Drive in Annapolis.|
Photo by Matthew Cole
|Mary Grace Gallagher in 1995, the year before she interviewed sexual abuse survivor Carolyn Surrick.|
We sat at Carolyn Surrick’s kitchen table for so long, talking and crying, that we had gotten hungry. She pulled out a bowl of edamame beans steamed the night before and showed me how to eat them right out of their shells.
I was, at the time, a young reporter for The Capital, following up on a phone call she had made the previous week. She had told me that, when she was a student at Key School in the early 1970s, she and many other students had been raped and sexually assaulted by a handful of their teachers.
I cried more than she did that long afternoon as she detailed stories of predators and lost childhood. She told of an art teacher who decorated the library with plaster casts of the breasts of pre-pubescent girls. She told me that grooming for abuse started when girls and boys were 13- to 14-years old.
There was some indication, she said, that the abuse was ongoing, as one of the alleged perpetrators was still employed there. During that conversation, one of the edamame burst out of its shell and hit Surrick directly between the eyes. I was aghast with embarrassment for having debased our somber conversation. She almost rolled off her chair laughing.
I came back to the old newsroom on Capital Drive with a list of the alleged perpetrators’names, eager to make calls, dig in, and get the story on the page. My features editor sent me straight to the news desk. The news desk sent me to the managing editor. I had a big story, I told them, breathless. A huge story.
That was in 1996 or 1997. The editors — all men — shot it down, wanting hard evidence, like police charging documents. I can’t remember exact quotes about bigwigs and board members, but I do remember our uncompromising city editor, who wore cowboy boots and a curly mustache like a warning, shaking his head “no” into the collar of his shirt and mentioning the word “lawsuit.”
I’m not certain what I told Surrick at the time, but I remember I was sure I could find a work-around for the journalistic standards that were inadvertently keeping attackers safe. But I never did.
Without more corroboration and documents, the paper would not touch the story and, after a while, I lost heart. Then, in 2000, I left The Capital after I had a second child, but I carried the Key story with me. For two decades, I physically carried my notes from that day in Surrick’s sunny treetop kitchen to three different houses. Each time, they felt a little heavier.
After a petition started to circulate in early 2018, asking people to call for an investigation into sexual misconduct at Key School “to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place to make sure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated… and to support all survivors on their path to healing,” I scrambled through my basement files, searching for those old notes, to no avail.
I signed the petition, writing that "I regret that I wasn't able to persuade The Capital to write about this two decades ago when Surrick shared it with me." That petition got 275 signatures and kicked off a year-long investigation that ultimately validated everything Surrick had told me.
The Capital, under new ownership and leadership, wrote about the petition and Surrick in February and May 2018, reporting that the school had launched the investigation. The editor working on followup stories, however, died in the June attack by a gunman that killed five and it wouldn’t be until January 2019 that the newspaper would come back to the story.
The details broke to the public in August 2018, when a reporter with The Washington Post wrote a story with the headline “Former Students Allege Decades-old Sexual Abuse at Maryland Private School.” Just beneath it, there’s a photograph of Surrick with two other former Key students, looking me straight in the eye.
Well, maybe they weren’t just looking at me.
They might have been looking at any of the hundreds of people who knew about the alleged abuse and did nothing for three decades, including several headmasters, school boards, parents, students and neighbors. Some of us were negligent; some complicit. When Surrick emailed me last fall, shortly after I started writing for The Capital again, I wondered which category I fell into.
Surrick is grayer now, but her face remains girlish and freckled. She’s been sticking to a regimen of massage, acupuncture and gem therapy that she calls her “voodoo medicine” ever since her mom, a music teacher at Key School, began suffering from Alzheimer’s disease more than a decade ago.
We met this time at the Ram’s Head near her home. She hugged me. When I expressed surprise at that — expecting her to be more put off by my decades of neglect of her story — she shrugged.
“The whole world is different now,” she said.
In some ways, she is right. Now that #MeToo has alerted the world to the pervasiveness of sexual assault, publications are stumbling to find workarounds to write about all the powerful people who have conspired to keep abuse in the dark, at other private schools, at the State House, at the Olympics and in the Catholic and Baptist churches and dozens of other institutions.
Surrick’s dogged pursuit of justice over the years has made her a magnet for other victims. They have brought her their stories, most in the strictest of confidence. She is a collector of woe, sworn to secrecy. Like a sin-eater, she has taken it all in and kept it safe inside her, not giving away the guarded names and their horrible experiences with trusted adults.
“Interviewing and hearing from other people who have gone through this is an effort on my part to figure out what happened,” Surrick said. “Sometimes, it all seemed so impossible to imagine.”
I sat and listened to her and thought the same thing: How did this happen for so long without a public reckoning? But now I know why.
Each of us is bound by rules about what stories we can tell and which ones threaten survival. Likewise, our institutions are bound, and, sometimes, gagged. Schools squash complaints; papers kill stories; children suppress their grief and doubt.
As the investigation into Key reported last year, “the abuse and lack of appropriate timely intervention was enabled by a toxic culture of permissiveness coupled with silence.”
I wish, as Surrick said, the whole world could be different now.
If things had gone differently, Surrick said wistfully, she might have become the world's greatest viola da gamba player. Instead, she stayed close to home and struggled for many angry years. She performed and recorded a lot of beautiful music, wrote poetry, built a life, had a daughter, started a program to help wounded warriors and taught groups of children about Renaissance instruments.
And she never stopped calling out Key School, sharing her experience there with reporters, editorial staffs, book publishers who all told her she didn’t have a story.
I knew I had not told her that, so I wondered what she thought when I dropped her story.
“I told myself this narrative,” Surrick said, her voice suddenly upbeat. “There’s this really great writer and reporter and she and I talked about all these things that happened. It was a really big story for her. But then she had kids and was going to write the story when they weren’t so little because she wanted to give it her full attention, but after they came, she couldn’t give it her full attention and so it had to wait. And even if it’s not why you didn’t write it, I like my reason better than yours and I’m a little attached to it.”
I do like her version better because, in that one, I made a conscious choice and had some power to decide what I would and should do.
In real life, I had no power. I was just another kind of sin-eater, the kind that collects some of the saddest stories a heart can hold and keeps them in darkness while more powerful people in powerful institutions preserve the world in silence.